Written by: Sharon Haussmann
My neighbours call me the hyena lady and I choose to take this as a compliment. I earned this name because of my insatiable fascination with spotted hyenas.
In the special part of wilderness where I live, Balule Private Nature Reserve, we have a territorial clan of hyenas totalling about 24 adults. This clan regularly den near my house and this has enabled me to spend many hours observing them. I have seen them hunt, scavenge, sleep, play, mate and very near giving birth. I have heard them whoop, growl, whimper, cackle, yelp and so much more. I know every individual, I have taken thousands of photos, videos and done some extensive sound recordings. These misunderstood animals have become a part of my daily life.
It is every time that I look into the dark soulful little eyes of a hyena cub that I wish to tell the world, and especially children, that there is so much more to hyenas than the villain characters so strongly portrayed in Disney movies.
While they certainly are fierce predators, they are also very nurturing, social and caring creatures. I have had the privilege to observe this active hyena den for almost three years now and my fascination with these beautiful, complex animals grows stronger every day.
Early mornings at the den are my most favourite time. This is when the adventurous cubs come out to play and their curiosity and mischievous antics can soften the steeliest of hearts and captivate one’s attention for hours.
The cubs’ play closely resembles that of domestic dogs. They love an energetic game of chase, leaving dust billowing over the den. The chase always ends with a tumble and some biting and playful bullying. Another amusing and favourite game of theirs is tug-of-war – one cub will find a stick and another tries to steal it away, resulting in two cubs growling and pulling fiercely at opposite ends!
The cubs often go running right over resting or sleeping adults; tumbling and scrambling over them and away. The adults do not flinch, tolerating the cubs play almost with amusement, and sometimes they even join in. While, of course, this play is important for their muscle development, it is clearly evident that some superior hunting skills are packaged in those cute, little black bodies.
Hyena cubs are born completely black, with open eyes and a full set of teeth. They cautiously emerge from the burrow at around two to three weeks old and soon gain enough confidence to venture and explore around the den. They gradually develop spots from the neck down and are completely spotty around six months of age.
It is when I see the tenderness with which a mother nurses her cubs, the affection between family members and the playful nature of these fascinating creatures that I wish to tell the world there is so much more to hyenas than the sly scavenging characters of Shenzi, Banzai, Ed and Janja!
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