Why I Love Hyenas (And I Hope One Day You Do Too)

Hyena ears

See? Someone Who Can Validate That It Isn’t Just the Cute and Cuddly That We Should Care About

I saw this article (see link above) and it made me think of a past post, about how we love supporting the cute, cuddly stuff, but not the ‘ugly’ stuff, even though every creature – big or small – is important.

I love hyenas. I don’t think they are ugly, I don’t think they are nasty, I don’t think they are useless. In fact, I find them completely the opposite. I think they are fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of all because they are one of the few species where the female is the dominant figure in the clan (yup, a group of hyena is called a clan). The sexes are incredibly difficult to tell apart (though the female is often bigger than the male), and they all make the most astounding vocalisations.

Hyena really do giggle. I’m convinced that the sounds used when Stripe was hatching in the movie Gremlins were actually hyenas. And if so, it’s yet another example of people misunderstanding and misrepresenting these incredibly intelligent animals. I feel a need to help change this negative perception. I also have to admit, two of my most treasured memories of Africa include episodes with hyenas (one where a male came up to my fiancé and I and drank from the bathtub less than 4 meters in front of us – that’s about 12 feet – and another, where a mother and her two cubs slept on my front lawn – looking and acting so much like domestic dogs it was eerie – and let us sit with them for a good hour).

Hyenas are not dogs and they are not cats. Though their behaviour is more in line with canines, they’re actually more closely related to felines. However, they are actually their own little family (Hyaenidae).

I’ve checked this out in a few different places, and it appears that no one can make up their mind as to how many species of hyena there are. I’ll go with there being four species of hyena – spotted, brown, striped and, of course, the family misfit (because every family needs one) – the aardwolf. And the aardwolf – threatening as it may sound – is insectivorous, pretty much living on termites. A little bit of a letdown there. With the exception of the aardwolf, whoever named the different species of hyena suffered from a severe lack of creativity. And even their Latin names are boring. Crocuta crocuta? Hyaena hyaena? Really?? At least the brown hyena and the aardwolf got a little more variety, Parahyaena brunnea and Proteles crostata, respectivelyI wonder if they might get more love if we renamed them. The Golden Spotted Hyena? The Mahogany Hyena? The Zebra Hyena? Sounds much nicer than plain old spotted, brown and striped. Anyway…

So, one of my beefs with the bad rap hyenas get has to do with lions. Everyone praises the lion. The incorrect perception is that lions are the mighty hunters, while hyenas do nothing but steal everyone else’s food. Yet as far as scavengers go, lions scavenge much more than hyenas do. In fact, spotted hyenas in particular are actually quite good at hunting and catching their own prey. It’s often the lions who come in and take the hyenas’ food, not the other way around.

My most recent hyena adventure involved a den with mom, two baby cubs, a handful of adolescents chewing on the scenery, and a few yearlings. I sat by the side of the road and watched them play for over an hour, always keeping one eye out for any adventurous youngsters attempting to eat my tyres (it’s happened before) or rewire the underside of my car (that happened too). The mom, like most mothers I’ve met, had infinite patience for the brood of babes tumbling over, gnawing on and pawing at her. It really took everything I had not to reach out and touch one of the tiniest ones. Which leads to one of the hardest aspects of being out here for me – you can’t touch anything. Not if you want to keep your limbs intact, at least. Anyhow, I’ve posted a few photos below. You have to admit – they can be awfully cute.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Here are some good sites if you want to learn a bit more about these fascinating, misunderstood creatures. I imagine you’d be more inclined to trust the ‘experts’ over some girl from New Jersey…

Oh, and they spell hyena like so in South Africa: hyaena. Eish, somebody needs to start a petition to make all spellings of English words consistent.

African Wildlife Foundation


Okay, I’m not sure about the expertise of this last link, but I still think it’s a good read: Another Land


All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

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