I saw my only wild hyena at Kenya’s Maasai Mara park: a mother lying on the ground and her cub. The cub was plain dark brown. The mother was unmistakeable with its spotted brown body and black face. More than anything, I recall being surprised at its large size, bigger than a dog or a jackal.

Hyenas are known as feliform (cat-like) mammals and belong to the family Hyeanidae. With only three species, the family of hyenas is one of the smallest among mammals.

The Spotted Hyena that I saw is the largest of the three hyena species. It can reach six feet and weigh up to 180 pounds. Striped Hyenas are smaller, at about 110 pounds. The smallest and shiest hyenas are Brown Hyenas weighing in at less than 100 pounds. Hyenas inhabit most of the Old World: Africa, Middle-east, India and parts of Europe.

Spotted Hyenas hunt in packs, going after wildebeest, zebras, and antelopes while racing at speeds up to 65 kilometres per hour. Striped Hyenas scavenge but can also take livestock such as sheep. Hyenas have strong jaws and eat virtually every part of their kill, including the bones that they crush. Their stomach contains concentrated hydrochloric acid that digests it all.

Over time, hyenas have come into frequent contact with humans. They have acquired notoriety as vermin for several reasons, including preying on livestock, stealing food and consuming waste. The portrayal of villainous hyenas in the movie The Lion King has added to their disrepute.

But after reading about the fascinating social life of Brown Hyenas in Mark and Delia Owens’ The Cry of the Kalahari my opinion of hyenas changed.

Starting in the mid-1970s the authors spent seven years in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. They went there to observe and study wildlife. Upon arrival with meagre funds, they searched desperately for a research topic to obtain a grant and finance their stay. One night they ran into nocturnal Brown Hyenas which are extremely rare and elusive. They gradually earned the trust of these endangered mammals and secured funding to research them.

But their work encountered a hurdle: they were unable to find Brown Hyena cubs. Eventually they tracked two cubs to an elaborate underground den, but these disappeared shortly. Then one day, almost accidentally, they discovered where all the cubs had gone. A large group of hyenas, including many cubs, was living in a clearing surrounded by a wall of tall grass. It was a communal den.

The authors observed three cubs of a hyena which had been killed by lions. Other female hyenas nursed these cubs. Furthermore, juvenile and adult hyenas of the den shared their food with younger cubs and helped them grow. In the ruthless environment of the desert, where food was scarce and water scarcer, one would have expected a bitter fight for every morsel of food. Instead, the hyenas acted with compassion and generosity.

Who would have guessed that these reviled animals could be so caring and noble?

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