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Original Issue

When Rabbits Made Some Cowboy Stew

Looking back over the long summers there is agreement that all of them were very warm, but somehow it seems, to the old cowboys, that 100° was just hotter years ago than it is now. Certainly 1932 was no exception. Walking across the sandy wastes of West Texas was like walking across a stretch of live coals. Even the horned toads were stepping gingerly and the only thing a man could really do was sit in a cool shadowy place and consider extraordinary schemes.

In this fashion was hatched the Great Rabbit-Roping Ruckus—one of those events that went down in history and stayed there, but that did add nevertheless a ripple to its particular and peculiar time.

In Odessa in 1932 the principal concern of the members—almost all of them cowboys—of the American Legion post was the town's annual rodeo; what it needed was publicity.

According to one version of subsequent events, the planners got their inspiration from a party of visitors from the East. The Easterners accompanied their rancher-host on a wagon ride across the plains. As the rancher stood in the slowly moving wagon, idly twirling his lariat, a jackrabbit was startled from its noonday nap and sprinted away, bounding in the manner peculiar to all jack-rabbits.

The rancher tossed his lariat in its general direction, and in shock he saw his noose fall true and the rabbit bite the dust. His visitors exclaimed delightedly, and although the rancher was at first modest, he finally admitted that such skill was commonplace among West Texas cowboys, some of whom were capable of rounding up entire herds of jackrabbits, armed with little more than a sturdy rope.

What happened next is that a young newspaperman named R. Henderson Shuffler informed the wire services that the world's only professional rabbit-roping event would be a part of the annual Odessa rodeo. Further press releases presented the jackrabbit as a canny creature capable of defending itself with its bare paws against a lone cowboy.

Letters of protest began to flow into the tiny Odessa post office. An official of the Colorado State Bureau of Child and Animal Protection wired Sheriff Reeder Webb that roping rabbits was a crime in that state, punishable by a $500 fine and two years in jail. A letter signed by 21 residents of another state demanded that rabbit roping be eliminated as inhumane and demoralizing. The rodeo sponsors could not understand how an event that was impossible could be inhumane, but they did understand they had struck a bonanza of newspaper space, and their next move was to join the irate letter writers. The heretofore ignored jackrabbit was a page-one feature for several days, the center of a national controversy, praised and protected by friends it never knew it had.

Undeterred by attacks, the Legion proceeded with plans for the rabbit roping. Sheriff Webb and a number of the cowboy members contrived a trap in the rangeland southeast of town. Their bowlegs proved a curious handicap but eventually the cowboys corralled a dozen jackrabbits and herded them triumphantly to the rodeo grounds. Significantly, not a single one of the rabbits was captured with a rope.

Surprisingly, for an event every West Texan realized was preposterous, there was no shortage of challengers for the wily jacks. One published estimate calculated that 75 contestants paid the entrance fee and prepared to become the world's first rabbit-roping champion. An oldtimer still around Odessa in 1968 recalled that although the entries included "a lot of new people...those oil-field people" they also included some very competent cow punchers like "the Duncan boys" from Pecos and some veteran hands from Fort Stockton.

Rodeo day dawned good and hot and the crowd began assembling early around the lake north of town. (It should be noted here that in West Texas the word "lake" does not necessarily denote a body of water.) The natural amphitheater was surrounded by a quarter-horse track and equipped with such traditional trappings as chutes and corrals. Also with the very first rabbit-roping arena—an area approximately the size of a suburban living room, fenced in by chicken wire.

Sheriff Webb opened festivities astride a striped-legged cow, and after the usual flurry of bronc riding and calf roping the great rabbit-roping event began. The first roper stepped gingerly into the pen. Admittedly, he had no tradition or experience to call upon. After one jackrabbit and then a second and finally a third had flashed by him he stepped back out, embarrassed. This left the second roper, with no more experience and tradition than the first had had.

As the crowd jeered, cowboy after cowboy stood uncomfortable and helpless while the furry frustrating animals skipped around them. At first the punchers relied on their old skills with the rope but as their attempts failed they became desperate and were reduced to blind luck, hoping a hopping jackrabbit might blunder into their loop.

Some say not a single jackrabbit was ever roped, others that the sheriffs from Mentone and Pecos were successful and that a number of women captured prizes with their bare hands—thus qualifying as history's first jackrabbit bulldoggers.

Rabbit roping was finished forever as a rodeo sport at that time and in that dusty place. The arena, far from being declared a site of historic interest and marked with a permanent monument, is now occupied by the Shadows Night Club and the Navajo Freight Lines. An odd and ugly little statue of a jackrabbit, across the street from the Chamber of Commerce building, does commemorate the event and provides a keen place for today's drugstore cowboys to scratch their initials.

Reeder Webb, the rough and tough sheriff, retired from law enforcement many years ago. He lives around the corner from the jackrabbit statue in a white frame house on Sam Houston Street.

"People around here didn't pay any attention to the rabbit roping," he says. "It was people away off, and newspapers. A bunch of silly Easterners tried to raise hell, but it was ignorance on their part. They didn't know what they were doing. Not one time in a hundred thousand could you catch a jackrabbit with a rope. It'd be like roping quail."

Like roping quail. Now there's an idea.