There’s a publicity campaign on to salvage the reputation of one of the world’s ugliest predators – the hyena.
In recent years, scientists and animal handlers that work with this fearsome mammal have tried to dispel what they call “myths” about the hyena and to celebrate its apparent virtues.
I’ve read a spate of recent interviews with these “experts.” They offer a lot of special pleading on behalf of their favorite “pet.” But nothing that justifies a wholesale reconsideration.
Hyenas, on the whole, are just nasty self-serving creatures.
A lot of prestigious commentators throughout the ages have disparaged the hyena – and for good reason.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, noting that the hyena often feeds on carrion, or dead animals, described it as “exceedingly fond of putrefied flesh.”
Novelist Ernest Hemingway concurred, calling hyenas a “devourer of the dead.”
American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt went so far as to describe the hyena as a “singular mixture of abject cowardice and the utmost ferocity.”
Can they all be wrong?
Defenders of hyenas say their reputation as “scavengers” is exaggerated. Perhaps. Hyenas do hunt and indeed, are highly effective predators, often bringing down much larger mammals.
But they do scavenge, far more often than other beasts.
And how do they hunt? In large groups, sometimes as many as 100 at a time. Hyena-lovers say this demonstrates the creature’s amazing social skills. How else could they round themselves up and stay together as a pack?
Others would say this “talent” reflects the animal’s primal blood lust.
Hyenas in small groups are known to go after the vulnerable children of other mammals, which hardly seems sporting.
One of their favorite objects of attack is a young and defenseless lion cub. A small pack of hyenas will creep up on a sleeping lioness surrounded by her adoring children.
While some hyenas try to keep the lioness at bay, the others will surround and attack her cubs.
And there’s something even worse: Hyenas are known to eat many of their captives alive.
Once they pin their prey down, the hyenas begin consuming its flesh, haunches first, as the animal whimpers and struggles to wriggle free.
Still, think these cruel killers are cuddly and misunderstood?
Much of the revised case for hyenas rests on the spotted hyena — just one of the mammal’s four species. Others include the brown hyena, the striped hyena, and the aardwolf.
It’s true that spotted hyenas kill 95% of the creatures but the striped hyena is exclusively a scavenger.
And it’s the spotted hyena that is notorious for devouring its prey alive.
Arguably, one of the most fascinating characteristics of the spotted hyena is its genitalia.
The ancients used to refer to the hyena as a “hermaphrodite,” but the truth is even odder: Females lack a vaginal opening but their sex organ is a prolonged penis-like structure through which they urinate, copulate and give birth.
How did this happen? Amazingly, to this day, no one really knows. But the spotted hyena social system tends to be dominated by these alpha-females — not the males. They organize the packs and the hunts and sit atop the hyena hierarchy – often alone.
Spotted hyenas are also celebrated by their fans for spending long hours with their young, which presumably makes them “good mothers.” In other words, they do take care of their own.
But they just love to terrorize others.
Arguably, modern feminists should be celebrating the hyena, at least its spotted species. They dominate their men and have managed to achieve an admirable work-life balance. And the rest of the animal world lives in considerable fear of them.
But the key to hyenas’ strength is their numbers. Acting in concert, they can be a powerful and destructive girl gang. But by themselves, they’re often the cowards they’re reputed to be.