In 1886, a large, decidedly odd-looking canine beast was shot and killed by Israel Ammon Hutchins, the grandfather of present-day zoologist Dr Ross E Hutchins, on his ranch in the Madison River Valley north of Ennis, Montana. Moreover, this strange creature was actually preserved, and for many years was exhibited in a glass case by taxidermist-entrepreneur Joseph Sherwood (who had received it in trade from Israel Hutchins) at his store-cum-museum near Henry’s Lake, Idaho. In addition, a decent black and white photo of it was taken and published in Dr Hutchins’s autobiography Trails to Nature’s Mysteries: The Life of a Working Naturalist (1977).
What is especially interesting about this creature, as subsequently recognised and publicised by American cryptozoologists Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark, is that it bears a close resemblance to a longstanding mystery beast known to the Ioway people and other native Americans living along the USA-Canada border as the shunka warak’in – described as a dark-furred beast with a lupine head and high shoulders but sloping back and short hind legs, thus resembling a cross between a wolf and a hyæna. Naturally, to have a preserved specimen of such an animal to hand for scientific examination, particularly in these technologically advanced times of DNA analysis, is a great boon – or would be, were it not for the regrettable fact that several years ago it vanished, having been moved to some unspecified location in the West Yellowstone area.
Happily – and very unexpectedly – however, this unique specimen has just been rediscovered. After reading a story about it in late October 2007, Jack Kirby, another grandson of Israel Hutchins, tracked down the elusive exhibit to the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello. Moreover, the museum has agreed to loan it to Kirby for display at the Madison Valley History Museum. A new examination of this famous specimen has revealed some previously undocumented details. It measures 48in (122cm) from the tip of its snout to its rump, not including its tail, and stands 27–28in (69–71cm) high at the shoulder. Its snout is noticeably narrow, and its coat is dark brown, almost black, in colour, with lighter tan areas, and includes the faint impression of stripes on its flanks. Despite its age and travels around America, this potentially significant taxiderm specimen is in remarkably good condition, with no signs of wear or tear or even any fading of coat coloration. Could it truly be a shunka warak’in? And, if so, what in taxonomic terms is the shunka warak’in? Now that the lost has been found, DNA analyses of hair and tissue from the long-preserved exhibit may at last provide some answers.