The members of the Hyaena Specialist Group have concluded that one of the largest obstacles to hyaena conservation is the negative image most people hold about hyaenas. We believe this negative image represents an unfair stereotype of hyaenas, which are in reality fascinating, intelligent and even beautiful creatures. Unfortunately, however, a positive image is not the one at the forefront of the public imagination. According to University of California, Berkeley, biologist Stephen Glickman, when Disney animators went to his hyena research facility to make sketches for The Lion King, scientists there made a plea for showing the predators in a more positive light—but the trio of hyenas in the movie reinforce the common stereotype of hyaenas as cowardly, skulking low-lifes.
 
A few examples of hyaenas’ public relations challenges are listed below:

  • African legends and folklore associate the hyena with witchcraft and the supernatural. The spotted hyena is to Africa what the black cat is in the U.S. — the premier witch animal, uncanny and terrifying. Hyenas are considered a favorite mode of transportation for witches in Tanzania and India.
  • Sudanese folklore and Persian medical writings from the 14th century warn of a combination man and hyena, similar to a werewolf, who attacks people under cover of darkness.
  • In the Middle Ages, hyenas were believed to dig up and consume human corpses.
  • In Green Hills of Africa (1935), Ernest Hemingway wrote about “Fisi, the hyena, 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, belly dragging, loping away on the brown plain . . . “
“Striped hyena” by Karen Laurence, Nairobi, Kenya.

A number of modern artists depict hyaenas in a favorable light (see examples below). However, a new Hollywood film entitled “Hyenas” has just been produced (in 2007) by Entertainment Lab that promises to move the lay person’s perception of hyaenas in a negative direction. Here is the Overview from the film’s website: “Hyenas” the movie is an urban legend detailing accounts of human encounters and attacks by a sub-culture of predatory cryptohuman Hyenas. These shape-shifting human-like creatures prowl the rural back roads and forests of North America and have long been thought to exist by Cryptozoologists. Folklore and sightings persist even as mainstream science denies their existence. But these fierce creatures with bone crushing jaws and an appetite for human flesh are real and live up to the fierce reputation of their cousin, the African Spotted Hyena. A dozen snarling, fighting crypto Hyenas can devour an adult human — skeleton and flesh — in a matter of minutes.”
This film will surely not help us conserve hyaenas!

For more on how hyaenas have been viewed throughout human history, read Glickman, S.E. (1995) The spotted hyaena from Aristotle to the Lion King: Reputation is everything. Social Research 62:501-537.

Early depictions of hyaenas.

 Paleolithic cave painting from Ardeche, southern France.
 Roman mosaic of a hyaena found in Tunis, Tunisia. This mosaic was create by an unknown Roman Artist from the 1st century-2nd century A.D.  (46.3 x 46.3cm). The Brooklyn Museum.

Hyaena Sculpture by an unknown artist. Namibia.
Wood with black pigment, horse hair.
(22 1/2″h x 7″w x 7″ d.),

Contemporary depictions of hyaenas.

Brown hyaena sculpture by Donald Greig. Photo courtesy of Gus Mills.

Spotted hyaena by an unknown South African wood carver. Photo courtesy of Gus Mills.
Brown hyaena by Maurice Fievet. Photo courtesy of Gus Mills.
 Brown hyaena. Charcoal by Paul Angustinus. Photo courtesy of Gus Mills.
Spotted hyaenas. Charcoal by Paul Angustinus. Photo courtesy of Gus Mills.
Walt Disney’s depiction of spotted hyaenas. One of these hyaena characters from The Lion King was named “Shenzi,” which means “slovenly” in Swahili.
Hyenas dance in the stage version of The Lion King.
“Spotted Hyena #3” by Rebecca Burke. Oil on board.
Spotted hyaenas by Zakkie Eloff. Photo courtesy of Gus Mills.
“Hyena legend” by Keith Joubert. Knysna fine art.   
“Striped hyena playing a bone harp” by Heather Bruton 2003
“Hyena” by Marjolein Witte
Here Comes Trouble   (Artists for Conservation)
Dimensions (inches): 12 x 16
Hyena painting from http://www.thanuka.com/set1/hyena.jpg
Painting by Christopher Berens.
 Hyaena drawing on synnabar.com
In this novel, the main character find himself trapped on a small lifeboat with a hungry hyena.
Hyaenas are depicted in a favorable light in this children’s book.

Leave a Comment