Posted in Africa, Nature, Photography, Travel



Photograph by Cheryl Merrill
Photograph by Cheryl Merrill

an excerpt from my book:

The first time I stayed with Doug and Sandi, Stanley’s Camp manager met me in the lounge, handed me a cold beer and pointed to the banks of a nearby lagoon.

“Last year hyenas dragged our sofa out there and ripped it apart.”

The leather sofa never had a chance. A pack of frenzied hyenas can devour a four- hundred-pound zebra in less than half an hour, eating its bones, skull, hair and horns, even its hooves, leaving only a smear of blood on the ground. With a bite pressure of over a thousand pounds, hyenas pulverize and swallow enough bone their scat is chalk-white.

They will chase, kill and eat almost anything that moves: zebras, wildebeests, warthogs, rodents, hares, snakes, baby crocodiles, turtles, lizards, birds, caterpillars, termites, and every species of antelope in Africa. They will eat things that don’t move – such as dung – or flesh so putrefied and full of maggots it’s the consistency of cottage cheese. They will filch and eat anything not locked up: boots, toothpaste, shaving cream, underwear, soap, even bottles of hot sauce. What’s glass to a creature that can eat a zebra’s hoof?

At Stanley’s the hyenas climbed a set of wooden steps into the dining lounge in the dead of night, shoved aside several tables and chairs, pulled the sofa down the steps and dragged it the length of a football field, depositing it at the lagoon. They ate its leather and left a gnawed wooden frame.

I asked the manager, “Why the sofa?”

“Just the oil from human hands.” He rubbed a palm across the sofa’s replacement. It’s leather, too. This sofa must also be doomed.

“There’s a den near the main road,” he added. “A game drive’s going out soon, if you want to go.”

We parked near the entrance of the den, motor off. The guide cautioned us to be very quiet. After a few minutes, a lone Spotted Hyena tentatively emerged. She had the slouched profile typical of hyenas: massive head, thick neck, and shoulders tapering to small hindquarters – a hybrid creature’s odd profile, half fearsome predator, half coward.

The second largest carnivore in Africa (after the lion), and the most numerous of the large predators, the Spotted Hyena is both opportunistic and aggressive. A single adult, weighing at most one hundred and forty pounds, is capable of taking down a six-hundred-pound wildebeest. Although hyenas kill ninety-five percent of what they eat, they steal at every opportunity, chasing leopards, lions and cheetahs from their own kills. Everything a hyena eats is digested within twenty-four hours. Even the sofa.

Grinning her famous false smile, the hyena sat on the bare slope near the entrance of the den and turned black, empty eyes toward us. Her ruff and the tip of her brushy tail had a reddish tinge, but the rest of her coat was a dingy, grayish-tan. Her round ears and bear-like muzzle were lined with black. Spots on a hyena appear when they’re a year old and then fade over time. The irregular splotches on this female’s fur were still sharp, so she’s most likely a subordinate younger sister to the clan’s dominant female.

Less than a moment after the babysitter sat down, unspotted black fuzz-balls erupted behind her. Each time she took a pup down into the den, another escaped and then another. The grinning, panting, anxious nanny seemed to be having a nervous breakdown. I would have considered the pups cute, except for the hyena’s awful reputation.

Yesterday evening, when I mentioned the sofa to Sandi, she told me that in 2000 hyenas had killed an eleven-year-old American boy at the Xakanaxa (Kah-khan-a-kah) Campground, thirty miles northeast of here. Despite the young age of her son, his mother allowed him to sleep by himself. Apparently he left the zipper of his tent open, hoping to photograph the hyenas circling their campsite earlier in the evening. According to some accounts, he may have even brought food into his tent.

Awakened by shrieks and crazed laughter, their guide saw a huge female hyena dragging the boy into the bush.   People from nearby campsites helped locate the decapitated body, drove away the hyenas and guarded the boy’s remains until daylight.

One rescuer reported hitting the dominant female hyena – identifiable by the scar on her forehead – with his Maglite flashlight. “Guns aren’t allowed in the game park . . . so I hit the hyena on the head, and then she let go of the body and ran off.”

In the parks and game reserves of Africa, you never, never sleep with your food or leave the zipper open on your tent – if they’re around, hyenas will walk right in. At Doug and Sandi’s kitchen shelter anything even remotely edible is secured in heavy metal lockers or inside a propane-powered refrigerator. Over at Stanley’s, food is kept behind the heavy doors of a wood-frame kitchen. Watchmen now patrol the camp after dark.

But I bet someday hyenas will manage to steal the new sofa. They faithfully patrol the camps, too.

Photograph by Cheryl Merrill
Photograph by Cheryl Merrill


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

8 thoughts on “Hyenas

  1. I tend to agree with you Marion Cheek, that those animals we perceive to be ugly have certain beauty about them. And perhaps the opposite is true too – our own human species being a prime example. Just look at the horrible, ugly things many of us insist on doing to each other and to many of the earth’s glorious and innocent creatures, such as the senseless cruelty of elephant and rhino slaughter for ivory collection, shark finning of live animals, and bear bile collections. We may be the ugliest species of all in the eyes of the animals!!

    1. I have never met anyone fond of hyenas, but have met a lot of people who respect them for the complicated creature that they are. So necessary to the ecosystem of the African wild – as much sanitation engineers as the dung beetle!

      1. Well, what happened to me that changed my mind was the fact I saw this wonderful man who took the hyenas in & babied them, and I supposed they grew up around him.

        Their faces looked so sweet, and even their bodies seemed different – not so bloated & grossly mishapened. They were just not the same animal you see in the wild, hating on everybody.

        These animals were kind and loving. All animals (perhaps) would be kind and loving in the right environment.

        There was a story of a lioness, “Little Tyke” who absolutely refused to eat meat all during her life. She would graze amongst her friends, the cattle, sheep, etc. Her favorite was (I believe) a little bunny, who would snuggle up to her. Amazon has this book on her life. Here’s that book:

        AND, I used to think sharks were ugly, but I changed my mind on that – and I began to actually see their beauty, not ugliness, by focusing on their social life – not on what they have to do to make a living.

        Also, there’s a story about a vegetarian shark, who prefers to eat the same as the Dugongs or cows of the seas. In the article, you see a real sweet-faced little shark eating lettuce:

        Here it is –

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