Because of their voices, hyenas are thought of by the Arabs and Persians as semi-human. They can assume the guise of a beautiful maiden and entice a man - and then revert to their animal form and devour him.
The hyenas form a separate family (Hyaenidae) of the order of predatory mammals (Carnivora). They are characterised by a large head, powerful jaws and long forelegs. There are two species, the striped and the spotted hyena. The striped hyena most often feeds on carrion, whereas the spotted hyena is a true predator. The colour of the spotted hyena is a yellowish-grey, and the round spots on its body are dark-brown or black. The jaws of the spotted hyena, in proportion to the size of its body, are the most powerful of any mammal.
In tropical Africa the female hyenas come on heat in the rainy season. The external genitalia of the female are so similar to those of the male that it is easy to confuse the sexes. This is why Aristotle thought hyenas were hermaphrodites. Sexual maturity is reached by the males at the age of two and by the females at the age of three.
Hyenas like open spaces. They often hunt in packs, but also enjoy hunting solitarily. The spotted hyena is not to be despised as a predator: it is a big-game hunter. This fact was long unrecognised because of the hyena's reputation as a carrion-feeder. The spotted hyena is capable of astonishing boldness and often pursues healthy adult animals until they are exhausted.
In most cases where spotted hyenas and lions have been observed feeding on the carcass of a slain animal, it is the hyenas that have made the kill. In the spotted hyena the senses of sight, hearing and smell are all very keen.
Relations between man and the hyena have varied. In some places it has been protected as a useful scavenger, whereas in others it has been looked upon with superstitious horror. There have been cases of hyenas attacking man with fatal consequences for the latter.
The spotted hyena has a surprisingly large repertoire of vocal sounds. It growls, yelps, howls and emits many other noises. The well-known laugh of the hyena is uttered by the beast when it is being attacked or pursued. The characteristic wailing noise is made spontaneously by lone individuals; this sound, initially low-pitched, gradually becomes louder and higher.
In captivity the spotted hyena can live for quite a long time if it is properly looked after - up to forty years or more in some recorded cases.
SEE EDINBURGH BY BUS. Edinburgh Zoo -- At Corstorphine -- is justly renowned. With over 75 acres of ground it is ideally situated not only to display the animals at their best but also providing a point from which extensive views of the countryside are possible. Travel by Services 12, 26, 31 or 86 from gardens side of Princes Street.
I took a No. 12 bus from Princes Street. It carried me up Shandwick Place, then along West Maitland Street, through the Haymarket, by Haymarket Terrace into West Coast, then along Roseburn Terrace, and, finally, down Corstorphine Road, past Murrayfield, up to the Zoo itself.
This was in December, and the weather was dreadful: it was cold, and a
bitter wind blew, sometimes bringing with it showers of rain.
After walking round the Zoo for a bit, I came across the hyena's cage.
The hyena and I looked at each other and evidently took to each other. As
I moved myself in order to get a better view of the cage, I noticed that the hyena was intently watching my every step: it made exactly the same movement as I, and in the same direction. Then I began to test the quickness of its reactions. I made as though to move to the left - and the
hyena strained to the leftward with all its body - but then I suddenly moved to the right, and the hyena immediately followed suit. In this way we played games, hunting one another, probably for as much as an hour. I invented increasingly complicated stratagems - like the figures in a dance - for instance stepping back from the cage and making a diagonal movement. The hyena exactly duplicated all my moves.
At length I looked at my watch and realised that it was time to go - the Zoo would be closing in about an hour, and I had hardly seen anything yet.
When I started going away in the rightward direction, the hyena once more imitated my movements and, pacing me, walked to the very end of the cage. There it stopped still and looked at me questioningly, as though awaiting my next move. But I did not stop and continued to walk quickly on. Realising that I was leaving, the beast broke into a howl and began to beat itself against the bars. The rattling of the cage and the howling of the animal made me, against my will, look back. When I saw the hyena thrusting itself against the bars, trying to get out to me, I couldn't resist coming back. All at once it calmed down, and we continued our game.
About another hour went by, and a passing keeper informed me that the Zoo was about to close. I had not even noticed that it was already growing dark.
This time I did not look back. But the creature's wild cries, almost indistinguishable from the sounds of human grief, mingled with the clangour of the bars, still sound in my ears.
(Author's Note. I am grateful to Dr. Stevenson and Mr. Lockyer for permission to quote their letters in this story.)