Tenuously Tame: Humans and Hyenas


The Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena).  Though hyenas are generally seen as denizens of the African savanna, this species has a distribution through northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia through to India.  Image credit: Smith, Charles Hamilton. No year. “The Naturalist’s Library: Mammalia, Dogs.” Volume II. London: Chatto & Windus. Via Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The hyena has suffered from an unsavory reputation as a frightening,  loathsome creature.  Medieval rehashings of ancient Classical texts describe the hyena as an ungodly hermaphrodite that skulks about in tombs to feed upon the dead, as well as having the power to imitate the human voice to lure out victims into the night.


Medieval imaging of a hyena scavenging upon a human corpse.  This illumination comes from the Aberdeen Bestiary, which was produced in England around 1200.  Image credit: University of Aberdeen.

In 1833, Lieutenant Colonel William H. Sykes (1790 – 1872) wrote to the Zoological Society of London to refute the “popular error” that the Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena; cited as H. vulgaris by Sykes) was “ferocious and untameable” based on his personal experience with an individual he acquired in India and transported to the London Zoo (“the Gardens”):

Two years have elapsed since I placed in the Gardens of the Society the above-mentioned cub (a female), which has now attained its full growth, and I am happy to be enabled to confirm the opinions I formerly advanced.  In India it was allowed to run about my house, and on board ship it was released from its cage two or three times a day, to play with the sailors and gambol with the dogs.  It early recognised my person and voice, and would obey when called; and in generally was as playful and good-humored as a puppy.  My visits to it in the Gardens have been rare, and at long intervals, nor have I ever carried it food; I anticipated, therefore, that it would outgrow its early associations, and that I should be to it as any other stranger; but it has always greeted me not only as an acquaintance, but as an old friend. . . .

On Sunday last it was asleep in its cage when I approached.  On calling to it by its name it looked up, distinguished me in the crowd, started on its legs, and on my applying my hand to its mouth to smell to, threw itself down against the bars, rubbed its head, neck, and back against my hand, and then started on its legs and bounded about its cage, uttering short cries.  On ceasing to speak to it, and moving away, it stopped, and looked wistfully after me, nor resumed its motions until I addressed it again.  Its manifestations of joy were so unequivocal, as to excite the surprise of a great number of bystanders.  As these pleasing traits in the disposition of a calumniated animal appeared so new to those who surround me on that occasion, they may possibly be deemed of sufficient interest to be worthy of. . . . record in our Proceedings.

I take occasion to repeat my conviction, that association with man, constant kindness, and abundance of food, will suffice not only to modify, and indeed eradicate, the worst traits in the disposition of any animals of the higher classes, but give birth to others of which their natures were not deemed susceptible.

The affectionate reunion described by Sykes is reminiscent of what dog owners observe in their pets.  Hyenas are a branch on the feline side of the carnivore family tree, though very much their own distinct lineage.  However, their similarity to canines as intelligent, social group hunters points them towards tameness.  Legge (2011) cites a San Diego Zoo keeper saying that Striped Hyenas could be practically pets to individuals who care for them from a very young age, which collaborates Sykes’ experience.


Scientist, conservationist, and writer Delia Owens with a Brown Hyena (Hyaena brunnea).  With her husband, Mark Owens, Delia published an account of their years of research in an acclaimed memoir, “Cry of the Kalahari.”  Being a neutral presence — neither a threat nor a source of food — brought the Owens into a respectful living relationship with a number of individual large carnivores.  Image credit:  Namibiana Buchdepot.

There is some tantalizing evidence that hyenas were either domesticated or kept in captivity in ancient Egypt.  These animals were most commonly depicted in artwork as being led or carried as offerings.  There are even several images of hyenas being force-fed to be fattened for slaughter and consumption.  These images can be hard to interpret — do they represent real scenes or imaginings of elaborate, fantasized banquets for the elite?  The only physical evidence comes from a significantly later period, from the Workmen’s Village at Tell el-Amarna where bones with butchering marks were discovered.  It is not known if the butchered animals were captive or wild-caught, but it was clear that the hyena’s star had fallen and they were no longer part of the upper echelons of society.  Legge (2011) even corroborates this with artwork from the same period that relegates hyenas to mere victims in hunting scenes.

Saqqara relief

Drawing of a bas-relief from the Fifth Dynasty (ca. 2500 BCE).  The distinct profile of high shoulders and low hindquarters identifies these animals as hyenas.  They are closely handled by men who are force-feeding the animals in the center of the image sequence.  Image credit: Legge (2011).


Detail of a bas-relief from the Tomb of Kagemni, Mastaba 25 in Saqqara, Egypt (early Sixth Dynasty, after 2347 BCE).  Here a hyena is bound but gently fed by an attendant.  The poultry depicted in the upper left corner suggests the hyenas were being fattened up with choice meats.  Even today, hyena flesh is occasionally consumed for its magical properties and rich, sweet taste.  Image credit: AKG Images.

Archaeologists and anthropologists recognize that humans and hyenas share a long history, one beyond the days of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.  The relationship may go as far back as 4.4 million years ago, to the early Pliocene.  The Aramis site in Ethiopia has revealed a host of fossils, including an early hyena, Crocuta dietrichii.  But most lauded were the bones of an early hominine, Ardipithecus ramidus, nicknamed “Ardi.”  What was significant about Ardi was that, despite being trampled after death, her skeleton was relatively intact.  Grim as it is, it was worth celebrating since all previously known ardipithecine remains were just bits of undigested teeth and heavy bone.  Zoologist Hans Kruuk would remark that the incredible scavenging and digestive powers of the hyena has depleted much of the fossil record of early humans.


This particular specimen of Ardipithecus ramidus, named “Ardi”, was the first good look we had of this early human predecessor.  Image credit: Wikipedia.

hyena poop

The fate Ardi avoided by a quick burial in a mudslide.  The powerful digestive capability of the hyena draws out nearly all organic content, leaving nothing but pure mineral apatite from the bones.  Image credit: Smithsonian Magazine.


Hyenas were part of the Paleolithic human imagination.  Drawing of a Cave Hyena (Crocuta crocuta spelea) discovered in Chauvet Cave in France.  The images in Chauvet have been dated to be at least 32,000 years old.  Image credit: Wikipedia.

We evolved alongside these creatures, eating them and being eaten by them.  We watched hyenas, kept them at bay, and sometimes admired them.  During this long (and continuing) standoff between give and take, we have in some ways entered into a domesticated partnership.  Scholars such as Reed (1986) view domestication as a two-way, “cooperative, symbiotic process” that requires a change in both the wild animal and to ourselves when we put down our weapons.  This tenuous taming between hyenas and humans is still actively seen today in modern Africa.

Multiple studies have revealed that the Spotted Hyenas’ (Crocuta crocuta) indifference for areas of human habitation have defined a coexistence, a two-way domestication.  Hyenas are allowed to roam the city streets, where they consume nearly all organic garbage, including feces, and are therefore viewed as important agents of urban sanitation.  Some people will purposefully feed the animals to maintain their interest in sticking around.  In contrast, hyenas make no distinction between kitchen scraps and human remains.  Christian and Islamic burying grounds are often surrounded by high walls, or the body is otherwise protected in sturdy coffins or shelters.  But during times of intense stress such as epidemics, famines, and massacres,  hyenas may be tolerated as a practical means of disposing of corpses.  In his dissertation, Baynes-Rock (2012) observed the convoluted relationships between the people of the city of Harar, Ethiopia and hyenas.  This included the existence of two official hyena feeding places to attract wildlife tourism.  The operators of these businesses drive customers out at dusk to a designated area (usually a stretch of empty dirt road), call for the hyenas to come, and feed them chunks of meat as customers watch and take photographs in the beam of car headlights.  Feeding hyenas for tourist money most likely arose secondarily from feeding them just enough to deflect these scavengers from turning their attention to killing livestock or family members.  Baynes-Rock captured a remarkable statement from one of the men running the feeding operation:  he was always worried that when he called, the hyenas may not come.  Even with the familiar promise of an easy meal at the same time and same place, hyenas were never fully dependent or dependable.

Hyena Feeding_02

Advertisement for the Aboker feeding place.  Image credit: Baynes-Rock (2012).

Hyena Feeding_01

Sofi feeding place.  Hyenas are being fed pieces of meat on sticks.  Paying customers are allowed the privilege, but the photos here are of family members running the feeding operation.  These animals are treated with familiarity and they sometimes even enter the home, but they are left to wander freely through the surrounding land.  Image credit:  Baynes-Rock (2012).

Finally, there are the “Hyena Men” (Gadawan Kura) of Nigeria.  For most of the year, these men are regular farmers at the mercy of the fields and sky.  But they are also engaged in a hereditary profession of making and selling herbal medicines from town to town.  And like all good traveling medicine men, they need a good show to draw the customers in.  The Gadawan Kura perform street shows with hyenas, baboons, and snakes — all animals associated with fear, witchcraft, and superstition.  To have power over such animals imbues a mystique that enhances medicine sales and brings in much-needed income.  Video footage of these street performances show hyenas muzzled and on the end of heavy chains, jerked about, picked up, and spun around.  Whatever moments we saw before, where the animals are cared for as valuable assets and the calm moments of affection, are quickly forgotten.  It becomes painfully clear that the men have control over these animals and their priority is making money to support their families.  Though it can be hard to watch, it is undoubtedly representative of most human-animal relationships throughout all history.  In the First World concept of domestication and tameness, our pets absorb our love and affection, satisfying our egos.  With the hyena, there is a mutual understanding of the necessary partnership, of independent and sometimes conflicting interests.  In the proximity, there is still wildness and an acknowledgement of the danger that comes from both beast and human.


Gadawan Kura in costume.  Image credit: Pieter Hugo via So Bad So Good.


Training to handle hyenas, baboons, and snakes is a family tradition.  Image credit: Pieter Hugo via So Bad So Good.


Contact with animals begins at an extremely early age.  Children, adults, and animals all drink a secret herbal potion to protect them from injury.  Image credit: Pieter Hugo via So Bad So Good.


Image credit: Pieter Hugo via So Bad So Good.


Aberdeen University Library.  1995.  “Folio 11v Translation and Transcription.”  The Aberdeen Bestiary.  Accessed 16 August 2016.

Baynes-Rock, Marcus.  2012.  Hyenas like Us:  Social Relations with an Urban Carnivore in Harar, Ethiopia.  Dissertation.  Macquarie University.  Accessed 17 August 2016.

Gade, Daniel W.  2006.  “Hyenas and Humans in the Horn of Africa.”  Geographical Review 96 (4):  609 – 632.

Legge, A.J.  2011.  “The Hyaena in Dynastic Egypt:  Fancy Food or Fantasy Food?”  International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 21:  613 – 621.

Perkins, Dexter Jr.  1973.  “The Beginnings of Animal Domestication in the near East.” American Journal of Archaeology 77 (3):  279 – 282.

Reed, Charles A.  1986.  “Wild Animals Ain’t So Wild, Domesticating Them Not So Difficult.”  Expedition 28(2):  8 – 15.

Sykes, W.H.  1833.  “On a Remarkable Instance of affectionate Attachment in the common Hyaena (Hyaena vulgaris, Cuv.).”  Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London:  76.



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