Everybody From Aristotle to Disney Gets Hyenas Wrong

Slate’s animal blog.
April 16 2014 10:24 AM

Hyenas Are Fascinating, Not Disgusting

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It's not surprising Aristotle thought hyenas were hermaphrodites.

Courtesy of Kate Yoshida

I’ve gotten used to the reaction: “Really? Hyenas?” It’s almost always said with a mixture of surprise and thinly-veiled disgust, the same tone of voice that someone might use after finding out that you snack on rat intestines.

Yes, I spent seven years of my life studying spotted hyenas. I came out of the experience with a Ph.D. and a lot of entertaining stories about misadventures on the African savannah. But I also came away with the realization that hyenas have a serious image problem.

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I blame The Lion King for much of the current hyena hatred out there. While I’m not shy about my love for animated movies, Disney really blew it on this one. The antics of Banzai, Shenzi, and Ed taught several generations of movie-goers that hyenas are scatterbrained scavengers prone to mistakenly chewing on their own legs. Entertaining and central to the storyline? Sure. Biologically accurate? Not even remotely.

But Disney was far from the first to slam hyenas—they’ve been maligned for thousands of years. In his History of Animals, Aristotle wrote that the hyena “will lie in wait for a man and chase him, and will inveigle a dog within its reach by making a noise that resembles the retching noise of a man vomiting. It is exceedingly fond of putrefied flesh, and will burrow in a graveyard to gratify this propensity.”

The situation hasn’t improved in more recent years. Hemingway bashed the hyena as a “hermaphroditic self-eating devourer of the dead, trailer of calving cows, ham-stringer, potential biter-off of your face at night while you slept, sad yowler, camp-follower, stinking, foul, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves …” There’s more—for a normally concise writer, he certainly went on and on here—but you get the point.

I admit that hyenas are a bit unusual. Female hyenas, rather than males, rule the clan. Each female also sports a pseudopenis, a seven-inch-long, fully-erectile clitoris that mimics a male hyena’s genitals with an accuracy that can stump even a seasoned biologist trying to tell the sexes apart. It’s no wonder that people have long thought hyenas were hermaphrodites; watching a hyena with a huge erection lie down and nurse cubs is a pretty confusing sight.

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Hyenas' social IQ rivals that of most primates.

Courtesy of Kate Yoshida

Several other strange qualities probably don’t help the situation. Hyenas devour bone with unsettling ease, spend a lot of time splattered with the blood of their prey, and emit some very eerie whoops, giggles, and groans.

But their eccentricities don’t extend to ransacking graveyards, feasting on human faces, or snacking on their own body parts. Even many of the less nefarious accusations don’t hold up; for example, most hyenas actually scavenge very little, preferring to hunt their own food. They’re also about as far from stupid as you can get, with a social IQ that rivals that of most primates.

But does it matter what people think about hyenas? Should we care that cultural icons like Hemingway and influential brands like Disney promote these myths? Yes, I think so. I’d argue that millennia of misunderstandings have ingrained in us the idea that hyenas are animals to despise, a species that is expendable.

Hyenas may be biological oddities in many ways, but their quirks make them extremely valuable to those trying to understand the world around us. Their peculiar private parts challenge everything we thought we knew about sex roles in nature. Their incredible social skills are helping scientists figure out how and why our own brains evolved. Hyenas are also resistant to anthrax, making them an asset to the study of biological weapons.

With extinction on the rise, we must make difficult decisions about which species to save and how to use our limited conservation resources. Cute, charismatic animals like pandas and lions benefit from public adoration and generous donations, while less loveable animals like sharks and vultures face serious declines but have few advocates. Hyena populations are holding steady right now, but their future—like that of most large mammals—is uncertain at best.

If we want to preserve biodiversity, we’re going to have to set aside our personal biases and accept that even the weirdest species out there deserve at least a chance to thrive. You don’t have to fall in love with hyenas—or sharks, bats, or snakes, for that matter—but let’s not let our disgust determine their fate.

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Not disgusting.

Courtesy of Kate Yoshida

Kate Yoshida is a freelance writer and science geek living in Nevada. She writes about behavior, ecology, and the environment. Follow her on Twitter.

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