Enlargement photograph of a picture postcard of The Beast displayed alongside its glass case (photograph © Shane Lea)
Last month, a friend of mine informed me that just a few years ago he had been fortunate enough to view up close and personal(ly) something truly rare in cryptozoology – an actual physical specimen of a putative cryptid. And not just any cryptid either. Nothing less, in fact, than a suspected shunka warak'in – one of North America's lesser-known but no less interesting mystery creatures.
I first documented the shunka warak'in back in 2007, within my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, and I added a very important update to my account when that book was reprinted not long afterwards. So, before I document my friend's first-hand impressions of the afore-mentioned specimen, here is what I originally wrote 12 years ago concerning this very intriguing New World unknown animal:
The taxiderm ringdocus exhibit (aka The Beast) originally displayed in Sherwood's store/museum, where it was also labelled as a guyasticutus and a Rocky Mountain hyena (public domain)
Translating as ‘carrying-off dogs’, 'shunka warak'in' is the name given by the Ioway and other Native Americans living along the U.S.A.-Canada border to a strange dark-furred creature likened morphologically to a cross between a wolf and a hyaena, which sports a lupine head and high shoulders, but also a sloping back and short hindlimbs - bestowing upon it a hyaenid outline. As its name suggests, the shunka warak’in is said to sneak into the tribes’ camps at night and seize any unwary dogs, and it cries like a human if killed.
Sometime during the 1880s, a mystifying creature fitting this description was shot and killed by the grandfather of zoologist Dr Ross E. Hutchins (who documented the incident in his book Trails to Nature’s Mysteries, 1977) on his ranch in the Madison River Valley north of Ennis, Montana. Unlike so many other cryptozoological corpses, however, this one was actually preserved, becoming a cased taxiderm specimen that was subsequently exhibited for many years by a grocer called Sherwood at his store-cum-museum near Henry Lake, Idaho, Sherwood terming it a ‘ringdocus’. Moreover, a good-quality photograph of this unique specimen was taken, revealing its somewhat composite form – and appears in Hutchins’s book. This is just as well, because the whereabouts of the specimen itself are currently unknown, as it has apparently been moved in recent years to somewhere in the West Yellowstone area.
After reading Hutchins’s account and seeing the photo, veteran American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman keenly pursued this intriguing subject further, and together with fellow cryptozoologist Mark A. Hall he uncovered other accounts and data concerning odd hyaena-like beasts reported in North America over the years, which he duly collated in an article devoted entirely to the shunka warak’in (Fortean Times, June 1996). One further report dates from as recently as 1991, in Canada, when a peculiar hyaena-lookalike beast was observed by several eyewitnesses near to the Alberta Wildlife Park (Fortean Times, February-March 1992).
A seemingly different, clearer photograph of the taxiderm ringdocus/The Beast specimen (photographer's identity presently unknown to me, photograph seemingly in the public domain, but in any case reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Moreover, an additional report that may well have bearing upon the shunka warak’in case but which has not been published until now is one that was brought to my attention by cryptozoological artist William Rebsamen in an email to me of 19 May 1998. In it, Bill recalled meeting up a few days earlier with his high school art teacher, Ron Thomas, and had been very surprised to learn that Ron had a longstanding interest in cryptozoology. Described by Bill as a very non-nonsense person with a lifetime’s woodsman experience from growing up on a New Jersey horse ranch and moving to the Oklahoma pan-handle working with horses before finally settling down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, to become an art teacher, Ron passed on to Bill some very interesting information:
Ron also asked me if I’d ever heard of a strange predator that was not to be mistaken by locals as a bear or dog. Ron said he did not think much after first hearing about this from an old farmer who lived near him until he heard the same description from a totally unrelated second source near the same area. It is described as massively built in the front of its body while having shorter legs in back and travels in an unusual gait. As though Ron read my mind he next told me it sounds to him like some sort of hyena except that it is coal black in color. This reminded me of an article in Fortean Times (FT 87, page 42) in Loren’s ‘On the Trail’ of the mysterious (but poorly taxidermed) hyena like creature pictured in a photo from the Southwest.
I totally agree with Bill that Ron’s mystery beast certainly recalls Loren’s shunka warak’in – but if such a beast does indeed exist, what could it be? The most conservative notion is that reports of it feature nothing more than freak/deformed wolves or odd feral mongrel dogs. Even the stuffed specimen, sloping back notwithstanding, appears more canine than hyaenine in overall form as depicted in the photo of it. Additionally, an escaped/released genuine hyaena or two may also have been sighted. However, with the exception of the very dark-furred but also very rare brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea, modern-day hyaenas are generally light-coloured with distinctive spots or stripes (depending upon the species).
Brown hyaena in the Gemsbok National Park, South Africa (© Bernard Dupont/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)
As for any possibility that it really is a wolf x hyaena hybrid, this is not tenable, because canids and hyaenids belong to two totally separate taxonomic families. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that a wolf-hyaena mating would even produce offspring at all, let alone viable ones.
Three very dramatic identities that have been proposed [by various cryptozoological investigators] involve the prospect of prehistoric survival. One of these identities is an undiscovered, modern-day borophagine – a superficially hyaena-like subfamily of canids represented by fossils in North America’s Oligocene to Pliocene epochs (34-2.5 million years ago). However, their hypershortened faces differ markedly from the long-snouted profile of the stuffed creature. The second suggestion is a surviving Chasmaporthetes ossifragus, America’s formidable hunting hyaena, which officially became extinct around 10,000 years ago [since revised to around 0.78 million years ago]. And the third is a relict amphicyonid, an identity that has also been applied to another mystery mammalian carnivore reported from North America, the waheela [click here to read more about this cryptid on ShukerNature].
Of course, one of the best possible ways of ascertaining the identity of at least one supposed shunka warak’in is to trace the Sherwood-owned taxiderm specimen, and perform DNA analysis on hair samples taken from it. So if you live in or plan to visit the West Yellowstone area, and you happen to spot a strange-looking, stuffed ‘hyaena-wolf’ ensconced in a large glass case there, don’t shun it as a freak or a fake. Take some photos, ask its owners as many questions about it as you can, and please send me whatever images and information concerning it and its new location that you are able to. It may indeed prove to be nothing more startling than a shabbily-preserved wolf or dog – then again, it might prove to be a major cryptozoological find.
Cormocyon copei, a species of dog-like borophagine, depicted by Roger Witter in his Turtle Cove mural (public domain, according to Wikipedia – click here for details)
Not long after my book containing the above account was published, a highly significant rediscovery was made – none other than the seemingly long-lost taxiderm ringdocus itself! Needless to say, I was most anxious to add details of this very important new episode in the history of the shunka warak'in to my earlier documentation of it, so an updated reprint of my book was swiftly published that contained the following additional coverage:
STOP PRESS: The long-lost stuffed 'ringdocus' (p. 99), which corresponded well with descriptions of the mysterious shunka warak’in, has been found! 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 [IMNH] in Pocatello [where, unbeknownst to cryptozoologists, it had long been in storage together with Sherwood's other taxiderm specimens, ever since they had all been donated to this museum]. Moreover, the museum agreed to loan it to Kirkby in order for it to be displayed at the Madison Valley History [Association] Museum [MVHAM, in Ennis, Montana]. A new examination of this famous specimen has revealed some previously-undocumented details. It measures 48 inches from the tip of its snout to its rump, not including its tail, and stands 27-28 in high at the shoulder. As portrayed in a photograph accompanying an article concerning its unexpected rediscovery published by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on 15 November 2007 [click here to read this article and view the full-colour photo of it alongside Jack Kirby], 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 colouration. 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.
More than a decade after I wrote the above stop-press account, however, my hopes and expectations that samples from the stuffed ringdocus (nowadays also known as The Beast) would be submitted for DNA analysis to reveal its taxonomic identity have still to be fulfilled. Apparently, this is or has been due at least in part to legality issues concerning which of the two museums featuring in this specimen's modern-day history (i.e. the INHM and the MVHAM) has the legal authority to allow such samples to be procured from it and dispatched for testing – click here for more details regarding this complex matter as contained within a Cryptomundo article authored and posted by Loren Coleman on 27 May 2009. Having said that: according to a noteworthy comment posted below that article on 21 September 2012 by now-retired museum professional/vertebrate palaeontologist Richard S. White, the INHM has deaccessioned the specimen and conveyed ownership of it to the person who had previously borrowed it, i.e. Jack Kirby, which if so presumably means, therefore, that responsibility for permitting or preventing DNA analyses now lies wholly within the MVHAM's remit.
Meanwhile, I am pleased to be able to present herewith some interesting, hitherto-unpublished Beast data, in the form of first-hand eyewitness information and photographs kindly supplied to me by Shane Lea from Montana, plus details of a second, much more recent Montana mystery canid. Shane is a longstanding cryptozoological correspondent and friend of mine, who specifically visited Ennis's MVHAM a few years ago in order to observe its most enigmatic exhibit, The Beast, where it has been housed ever since it was originally loaned there from the IMNH in 2007.
In a series of emails sent to me during May and June 2019, Shane revealed that the MVHAM is a small natural history museum containing a nice collection of familiar North American mammals, plus The Beast, which is contained within a large glass case at the front of the building. Due to a combination of poor lighting and camera-flash reflections off its glass case dooming to inevitable failure any attempt made to photograph this specimen directly, Shane chose instead to photograph in close-up a couple of full-colour picture postcards depicting it that he purchased there, and then print enlargements of his photos on glossy paper in order to exhibit and examine The Beast's features afterwards in more detail.
When subsequently discussing its possible identity with me via email, Shane stated that he favoured a wolf, whereas I mentioned in reply that I leaned more towards either an exceedingly cross-bred domestic dog or the hybrid offspring of some such dog and a wolf. Both of us readily discounted any hyaena or prehistoric survivor identity, because it clearly was not the former and it appeared far too nondescript in appearance, relatively speaking, for it to be any of the latter options noted earlier here. To quote Shane:
[The] specimen I saw was no larger than an ordinary wolf…As I viewed “The Beast,” the whole time I was thinking in my mind “wolf.” Believe you me, I was looking for any hyena-like characteristics. No-one would love to find something “prehistoric” more than me, but, you have to keep your head on straight and be realistic, otherwise you’ll just end up fooling yourself. You brought up a very valid point that I had not considered before, the cross-breed consideration. One thing that always bothered me about the account of this beast, was that as recalled in the book: “Trails To Nature’s Mysteries,” this animal that was shot and killed, was described as being friendly toward the dogs around the ranch in Montana. Now, why would an animal described as “carrying-off-dogs” be friendly and non-aggressive w/dogs, unless it was actually part dog itself?
Trails To Nature's Mysteries by Dr Ross E. Hutchins (© Dr Ross E. Hutchins/Dodd, Mead – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only – click here to purchase a copy on Amazon's USA site)
This latter comment by Shane is a very valid one. For although it is not unknown for a wild canid to lack hostility towards an encountered domestic dog, such encounters generally involve either downright hostility or open avoidance between the two animals.
Equally worthy of note, however, is a comment dated 10 January 2008 and posted underneath a Cryptomundo news item authored on 15 November 2007 by Loren Coleman regarding The Beast's rediscovery (click here to read it), in which a reader with the username MustangAppy claimed:
I know for a fact that the previous Mammology [sic] Curator and the current Paleontology Curator at IMNH have both examined this animal and stated that this is a poorly mounted black wolf, period.
Also of interest is that in May 2018 a large canine mystery beast was once again shot in Montana. Here is what I subsequently wrote about it in one of my Alien Zoo cryptozoology news columns of 2018 for Fortean Times:
IS A MONTANA CRYPTID CRYING WOLF? Even more perplexing and media headlines-generating is the mystifying canine cryptid that was shot on a private ranch near Denton in the Lewistown area of northcentral Montana, USA, on 16 May 2018. With long greyish-brown fur, a large head, and a definite canine appearance, it superficially recalls a wolf in overall form. Yet according to Ty Smucker, wolf management specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), who has examined close-up colour photos of this creature's body, its feet seem too small, its ears too large, and its body and limbs too short. As to be expected, the story of its procurement and unresolved taxonomic status soon went viral on social media, resulting in a diverse array of identities having been proposed for it, ranging from the mundane to the monstrous. At one end of this taxonomic spectrum are suggestions that it may be a specimen of the elusive dogman, a bizarre entity whose existence remains unconfirmed but is said to be capable of walking bipedally, like a humanoid dog. A related notion, whose seriousness remains as undetermined as the creature's identity, is that it is a werewolf. No less thought-provoking are opinions that it is nothing less than a dire wolf Canis dirus, a very large, burly New World species believed to have become extinct almost 10,000 years ago. Another postulated cryptozoological connection is one that links it to an equally contentious wolf-like or even hyaena-like American mystery beast known variously as the shunka warak'in or ringdocus, an alleged (but never verified) taxiderm specimen of which is currently on display at the Madison Valley History Association Museum [MVHAM] in Ennis, Montana. And then there is the proposal that it is a young, emaciated grizzly bear – but I have yet to see any young bear, emaciated or otherwise, that has a characteristically canine head and jaws, not to mention a long bushy tail! My own thoughts are that it is a pure-bred wolf, a wolf x domestic dog hybrid, or a pure-bred domestic dog but of decidedly crossbred ancestry in terms of the number and varieties of breeds that may well have contributed to it (i.e. a mongrel or mutt of no recognised heritage). Among domestic species of mammal, the domestic dog is unparalleled in terms of its morphological and genetic diversity, so much so that I have little doubt that this diversity could readily engender the phenotype of the Denton beast under consideration here. All too often in cryptozoology, an unusual specimen is procured, only for its remains to be discarded or lost without any samples having been secured from it and subjected to formal scientific examination. Happily, however, in this particular instance that sorry series of events has not occurred. Instead, FWP game wardens went to investigate it after it had been shot, and its entire carcase has been sent to their laboratory at Bozeman for continued study. Bruce Auchly, information manager for Montana FWP, has publicly stated that they are now awaiting a DNA report back from the lab, after which we may finally know whether Denton's cryptid was merely crying wolf or whether it really was something out of the ordinary. In mid-June, the results contained in that keenly-awaited DNA report were made public by Montana's FWP in an official press release. This revealed that despite the fact that certain investigators had opined that it looked odd, the mystery beast in question was in reality nothing more than a very ordinary adult female grey wolf Canis lupus. In other words, not a dire wolf at all, merely a dire disappointment, at least as far as some cryptozoologists were concerned. [A CBS news report of this specimen's discovery and denouement that includes photographs of it can be accessed here.]
Conversely, neither of the two cryptozoologically fundamental questions regarding The Beast can be answered conclusively at present. What is its taxonomic identity? And regardless of what it is taxonomically, is The Beast one and the same as whatever the shunka warak'in is? (Always assuming, of course, that the shunka warak'in traditional folklore is actually based upon a real creature, rather than merely a wholly mythical, non-existent one.) Or, to combine the two: assuming once again that it is indeed real and not just a myth, is the shunka warak'in whatever The Beast is?
Digitally-created shunka warak'in image created by '18.104.22.168 aka A FANDOM User' (who states here: "I'm happy to see it still floating around the internet" (© 22.214.171.124 aka A FANDOM User, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Let us hope that whatever legal wrangles may be impeding the prospect of samples from The Beast being made available for DNA analyses can be resolved in the near future, so that at least the first of these two questions can at last be answered. Of course, who can say whether the likelihood that an unidentified mystery beast will always attract more visitors than an identified non-mystery one may also be playing a part in this complex scenario…?
The last words on The Beast, ringdocus, guyasticutus, shunka warak'in, Rocky Mountain hyaena, or whatever else one chooses to term this most taxing of taxiderm specimens belong to Shane, to whom I owe a great debt of thanks for so very kindly providing me with his very informative insights and photographs regarding The Beast, and also for his unfailing support and encouragement that he has always given to me down through our many years of cryptozoological correspondence, which I appreciate most sincerely – thank you so much, Shane!!
For lack of a better name, the cryptid in Montana was also called “Ringdocus,” an unfortunate moniker. But…at least the “Ringdocus” was preserved and can be viewed to this day. That at least is some small consolation for the poor cryptid’s unfortunate demise. R.I.P. “Ringdocus,” whatever you are.
Amen to that!
My book Extraordinary Animals Revisited, in which I first documented the shunka warak'in and The Beast (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press)