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In all my associations with hunters, travellers and naturalists, I have never yet been able to find one who would defend the hyena, which by common consent is classed as the most skulking, cowardly, cruel and treacherous of beasts~ Roosevelt, Theodore (1909), Roosevelt in Africa

Hyenas are carnivorous mammals which, although bearing a superficial resemblance to dogs, are actually more closely related to cats and viverrids. The hyena family consists of four species ; the large, predatory spotted hyena (also known as the "laughing hyena"), the scavenging brown and striped hyena and the small, insectivorous aardwolf. With the exception of the latter species, hyenas are powefully built animals with thick necks and jaws strong enough to crush most large bones.

Hyenas feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of human cultures they are sympatric with. Hyenas are mostly viewed with fear and contempt because of their scavenging habits and their alleged cowardice, as well as being associated with witchcraft, as their body parts are used as ingredients in traditional medicine. Among the beliefs held by some cultures, hyenas are thought to influence people’s spirits, rob graves, and steal livestock and children.


It was as large as a wild boar; long stiff bristles formed a mane on its neck, its colour was grey marked with black, the teeth and jaws were of extraordinary strength, the thighs muscular and sinewy, the claws remarkably strong and sharp altogether. But for his wounds, he would certainly have been more than a match for the dogs.~ Wyss, Johann David (1812), The Swiss Family Robinson, chapter 15
  • After much thought, I can come up with no other animal whose reputation is so at odds with the reality, not even the rat, which, despite widespread dislike, has many admirers, and apparently makes a charming pet. Hyenas are not reptiles or invertebrates - the usual kinds of creatures that incite widespread disgust - but are furry, warm-blooded animals that nurse their young (and, in this, there are parallels between our feelings about the hyena and our feelings about other ambiguous carnivores, such as the jackal and the wolf). Surely very few of those people who claim to despise hyenas can have lived through a traumatic encounter with one, even at a zoo. And why are hyenas so reviled when in many respects they look very similar to dogs, which are widely beloved? Most people's aversion to hyenas, clearly, has less to do with real hyenas than the context in which they are generally depicted, the misinformation that circulates about their habits and - as with rats and bats - the things they are associated it.
    • Brottman, Mikita (2012), Hyena, Reaktion Books.
  • Real hyenas, unknown to most of us, are far more diverse and fascinating that the dull, one-dimensional creatures most people think of when they hear the word 'hyena'. Spotted hyenas are courageous and intelligent; striped hyenas are quiet and shy; brown hyenas are bold and sociable; aardwolves are gentle and small. They are all strange and remarkable animals with much to teach us. The hyena's night music may be an unusual melody, but for those who choose to listen, it has a secret splendour all its own.
    • Brottman, Mikita (2012), Hyena, Reaktion Books.
  • It seems likely that the image of spotted hyenas as "cowardly scavengers" is fundamental to their reputational problems … It is also of particular interest that the prejudice was so powerful it clouded the perception of otherwise knowledgeable people (like Roosevelt and Heller) to what was happening in front of their eyes. When they came upon hyenas feeding at a carcass, they merely assumed that the animal had originally been killed by lions or other predators. When they found a cluster of distressed hyenas surrounding some feeding lions, they assumed that the prey had been dispatched by lions and that the hyenas were awaiting their turn to scavenge. When they actually witnessed kills, or observed hyenas fighting to hold their prey against intruding lions, these were assumed to be exceptions, and the reputation of hyenas as cowardly scavengers was maintained.
    • Glickman, Stephen E. (1995), The spotted hyena from Aristotle to the Lion King: reputation is everything, Social Research, Vol. 62.
  • As several distinguished authors of the present age have undertaken to reconcile the world to the Great Man-Killer of Modern times; as Aaron Burr has found an apologist, and almost a eulogist; and as learned commentators have recently discovered that even Judas Iscariot was a true disciple, we are rather surprised to find that some one has not undertaken to render the family of Hyenas popular and amiable in the eyes of mankind. Certain it is, that few marked characters in history have suffered more from the malign inventions of prejudice.
    • Goodrich, Samuel Griswold (1859), Illustrated natural history of the animal kingdom, Derby & Jackson.
  • It was funny to M'Cola [my African guide] to see a hyena shot at close range. There was that comic slap of the bullet and the hyena's agitated surprise to find death inside of him. It was funnier to see a hyena shot at a great distance, in the heat shimmer of the plain, to see him go over backwards, to see him start that frantic circle, to see that electric speed that meant he was racing the nickelled death inside him. But . . . the pinnacle of hyenic humor, was the hyena, the classic hyena, that- hit too far back while running, would circle madly, snapping and tearing at himself until he pulled his own intestines out, and then stood there, jerking them out and eating with relish.
  • No more than a hyena abandons carrion does a Marxist abandon treason.
  • Hyenas are slow in their pace, and altogether inactive; I have often seen a few terriers keep them at bay, and bite them severely by the hind quarters; their jaws are exceedingly strong, and a single bite, without holding on, more than a few seconds, is sufficient to kill any type of dog. They stink horribly, make no earths of their own, but lie under rocks, or resort to the earths of wolves, as foxes do to those of badgers, and it is not uncommon to find wolves and hyenas in the same bed of earths.
    • Johnson, Daniel (1827), Sketches of Indian field sports, London, R. Jennings.
  • Feet that make no noise; eyes that can see in the dark; ears that can hear the winds in their lairs, and sharp white teeth, all these things are the marks of our brothers except Tabaqui the Jackal and the Hyaena whom we hate.
  • There is a magic about hyaenas which can only be understood by those of us who have watched them, for some time. There is now a growing band of us, who came to the African bush with all our prejudices, with all that 'common knowledge' about hyaenas which proved so totally wrong, and who just fell for the spell of animals which were so totally different.
    • Kruuk, Hans in Mills, M.G.L. (1990) Kalahari Hyaenas, London: Unwin Hyman.
  • Why we should so despise scavenging is not clear, since it is a lifestyle at which our own ancestors were adept. In addition, like many popular images, that of hyaenas is distorted. It is not, and never has been, true that the Hyaenidae is a family distinguished by scavenging. Of the four species alive today - the Aardwolf and the Spotted, Striped and Brown Hyaenas - only the latter two are full-time scavengers. Furthermore, members of all eight Carnivore families will scavenge given the chance, and many make a living from it.
  • The Magi have held in the highest admiration the hyaena of all animals, seeing that they have attributed even to an animal; magical skill and power, by which it takes away the senses and entices men to itself.
    • Pliny, Natural Histories, Volume 8, Book 28, Paragraph 25, 92.
  • Hyaenas have earned a reputation for cowardice, due partly to the caution they exhibit in refraining from attacking other animals that might hurt them, partly to their fear of man,and to their offering no resistance when pursued and speared on horseback, a method of assault they can have no instinct to deal with. But in their favour it may be pointed out there are records of a single hyaena driving a panther from its "kill".
  • In the dark night the deep bass of the hyena is heard ; and then it laughs aloud, in a weird, shrill, shrieking treble. This laugh, seldom uttered, but when heard making one's heart shudder, is not a thing to forget ; on feverish nights it plagues one still in memory. No one need jest about it who has not himself heard it. He who has heard it understands how the Arabs take the hyenas to be wicked men living under a spell.
    • Schillings, C. G. (1907), In Wildest Africa, Harper & Brothers Publishers.
  • It has always appeared to me that the qualities and characteristics of the African spotted hyaena have met with somewhat scant recognition at the hands of writers on sport, travel, and natural history, for this animal is usually tersely described as a cowardly, skulking brite, and then dismissed with a few contemptuous words. Yet I think that the spotted hyaena of Africa is quite as dangerous and destructive an animal as the wolf of North America, which is usually treated with respect, sometimes with sympathy, by its biographers, though I cannot see that wolves are in any way nobler in character than hyaenas. Both breeds roam abroad by night, ever crafty, fierce, and hungry, and both will be equally ready to tear open the graves and devour the flesh of human beings, should the oppurtunity present itself, whether on the shores of the Arctic Sea, where men's skins are yellow brown, or beneath the shadow of the Southern Cross, where they are sooty black. There is nothing really noble, though much that is interesting, in the nature of either wolves or hyaenas, but neither of these animals ought to be despised.
    • Selous, Frederick (1908), African nature notes and reminiscences, Macmillan and co., limited.
  • I will weep for nothing, like Diana in the fountain, and I will do that when you are disposed to be merry. I will laugh like a hyena, and that when thou art inclined to sleep.
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