The life story of a hyena.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
April 12 2010 7:07 AM

Sad Yowlers?

The story of the hyena.

(Continued from Page 1)

It's pretty unusual to have large, dangerous predators as lab-research animals. Mice are easier. Visitors to the colony, including this visitor, are surprised when they see Glickman's 26 hyenas. They're big, each one larger than a St. Bernard, almost bear-size, 130 to 200 pounds. They have an unwavering gaze, curious, confident, and undeniably appealing. They don't avert their eyes as dogs and wolves do. Surprisingly, they're not canids at all but belong to a catlike family that includes the mongoose, the civet, and the meerkat.

They don't slink or skulk. Some of the Berkeley hyenas have been hand-raised and bottle-fed, and they galumph over to lick a keeper's hand through the fence. They do not smell bad, another common slander; what comes out of their unusually long digestive tracts is dry, white as bone, and scentless. They do mark territory with an anal gland secretion that smells like bad soap and is less offensive than the spray from an un-neutered domestic cat.

Those who care for the hyenas, including Mary Weldele, who has been there 25 years, follow clan rules, feeding the dominant females first to keep the peace. In the wild, a hyena hunting pack of 20 to 80 usually has one or two female chieftains. The females take the initiative and the males eat last.

Because hyenas hunt alone as well as in packs, clan members can be separated and when they reunite they go through a greeting ceremony much more elaborate and time-consuming than a domestic dog's. After some head-sniffing, the two animals turn head-to-tail and raise the inside hind leg. Both expose their genitalia for inspection and establish who's the dominant one. As Weldeld says, "it's an appeasement, a reconciliation, an acknowledgment of rank, and sometimes an agreement to cooperate."

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The animals form alliances to wear down galloping prey, to help each other win fights with lions, and to defend their kills against other meat eaters. The Berkeley hyenas' cooperating skills were demonstrated by a test in which a reward would be dropped only when two animals pulled on two separate ropes at the same time. They are not inclined to cooperate with human beings, though, and don't make great pets. A group of men in Nigeria have enlisted muzzled and chained hyenas to give themselves an aura of magic and power.

"They are always very aware of what another hyena is doing," notes Kay Holekamp, a Michigan State University zoologist who is basically the Jane Goodall of hyenas, observing them in the wild and sticking up for them whenever she can. There are hundreds of YouTube clips of hyenas, many dopey. The best photos, films, and information are at Holekamp's Web site.

When some of the drawing team for the Disney animated feature The Lion King came to visit the Berkeley colony (saving themselves a trip to Africa) Glickman and Holekamp hoped for hyenas to be represented, if not in a positive way, at least with accuracy. The result was disheartening: Disney's lion heroes, voiced by James Earl Jones among others, are brave and philosophical. The hyenas are cruel, gluttonous, and treacherous—lowly scavengers, dependent on the lions for food.

The creatures are adaptable in real life, and, happily, they don't care what Ernest Hemingway or you or I think of them. The shooting of hyenas in Africa is as common as the shooting of wolves in Alaska, and poisoning is also common, but hyenas are not officially endangered. Most people understand that without predators to limit the population, wildebeests, antelope, and the other ungulates would die from starvation and disease.

The live animals are not as cruel and treacherous as the cartoons, but they are wild. Holekamp is pictured on her Web site hugging a hyena, which seemed like a risk. "I'm not nuts," she said. "He was tranquilized."

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Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.

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