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Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Much-Maligned Beast

"Now, it's not entirely clear to me why we laud the predators so much and so disdain the scavengers, since most of us are hardening our arteries wolfing down carcasses that someone else killed, but that is our bias.  Lions get lionized, while hyenas never get to vocalize at the beginning of MGM movies,"

- Robert M. Sapolsky, A Primate's Memoirs

It wasn't until I finished yesterday's post - a Species Fact Profile on the spotted hyena - and hit the "Publish" button that it hit me.  Wow.  I wrote a lot.  As in, three times more than my usual fact profiles.  Now, there is a reason for that.  A lot more is known and published about spotted hyenas than, say, shield-tailed agamas.  A more prominent reason, however, was that I just really like hyenas.  A lot.

How much do I like them, you ask?  My mother still mocks me at regular intervals over how upset I was as a child over their portrayal in Disney's completely biased, propaganda hit-piece, The Lion King.  So much that I strived - in vain - to get my Boy Scout patrol to take on the name "Hyenas" (you would have thought I'd suggested we call ourselves the Syphilis or something, based on the reactions of my troop mates).  So much that my favorite memories of Africa were going to sleep in my tent, listening to distant whoops and cackles.

What makes hyenas special?  Well, they're badass hunters, who stand their ground against the lions who try to rob their kills.  They have a fascinating social structure; if ever an animal could serve as a feminist idol, it's these guys... I mean, gals.  They can literally eat bones... and not little buffalo wing bones, but femurs.  Their vocalizations are crazy, their appearance is wild, and their role in African myth and superstition is awesome.  Literally every zookeeper I have ever met loves hyenas.

And that's about all of us who do.

Most people just don't like them.  Some think they are vicious and savage.  Others think they are stupid and cowardly.  Most everyone thinks they are dirty and smelly and ugly.  Yann Martel spoke for most of his readers in Life of Pi, when his protagonist mused "That was the animal I had racing around in circles before me.  An animal to pain the eye and chill the heart."

Hyenas are funny-looking, to be sure, though I think they have their own elegance, an elegance of practicality.  To call them stupid is a monstrous slur; they have primate-level intellects, partially reflected in their complicated, ever-shifting social circles.  Their behavior can be interpreted as vicious, but the same could be said of any predatory animal.  If anything, the disdain humans feel for them probably is summed up in one word: scavenger.  But almost all carnivores are scavengers, or at least will be when given the opportunity, including early man.   It's a moot point, however, because hyenas aren't just scavengers - when they sun goes down, they are bold hunters of large mammals. 

At any rate, the hyena's lack of popularity has consequences.  Perhaps most tellingly, it shows itself in their relative scarcity in zoo collections.  I just scrolled down the list of zoos and aquariums that I've reviewed.  A grand total of four currently (December 2016) exhibit spotted hyenas.  That's versus 22 that have lions, 24 that have tigers, and 13 that have polar bears.  I travel to zoos quite often.  Unless it's a really cool exhibit or a neat view, I don't even bother taking pictures of lions anymore.  I see hyenas maybe once a year.  Even Disney, which produced The Lion King, the cartoon that for most Americans calls up the most evocative images of the animal, just added hyenas to their Animal Kingdom Park... two decades after lions, warthogs, mandrills, and other animal stars of the film arrived.

Ironically, if hyenas have any future in American zoos, they owe it to their arch-competitor (both in the wild, for food, and in the zoo, for space) - the lion.  Denver Zoo is perhaps the only zoo to have hyenas as a flagship species, featured in their stellar Predator Ridge exhibit.  Lions, hyenas, and African wild dogs rotate through each other's enclosures; the zoo takes advantage of the natural enmity between the three species to make excellent exhibits.  The hyenas pick up the smell of the lions in their enclosure and immediately go on patrol; the wild dogs, alert to the presence of hyenas in the vicinity, forgo their usual naps and are active and vigilant.  The lions, sensing wild dogs are near, keep eyes and ears open, wanting to see what's going on.  A few other zoos have copied this successful display, earning hyenas some needed spaces in American zoos.

For what it's worth, I think hyenas are awesome exhibit animals.  They can be very active, are super-inquisitive, and imagine how much fun feeding time could be when a whole goat carcass gets thrown over the railing.  I guarantee, you won't have any visitors climbing into that exhibit.

Perhaps the reason zookeepers love hyenas so much, I've mused, is that no one else does.  There are hundreds to thousands of animals at a zoo, depending on its size, and only a handful of "celebrities."  The keepers who know the animals, however, who know how smart or charming or fascinating even the most maligned animals are, see a side of them the public rarely does.  Keepers who work with hyenas often fall head over heels for him.  Besides, it's hard not to want to stand up for the underdog.

Even when it's not a dog.

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