The impression that many people have of spotted hyenas can often change with a visit to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our first spotted hyenas came from a private collector in 1934.
By the 1960s, we had hyenas reproducing at regular intervals. In 1962, a female gave birth to three young, a rare occurrence, as female hyenas have just two nipples. One of the babies went to our Zoo nursery—our first attempt at hand-rearing a spotted hyena. Named Dandy, the little one grew healthy and strong.
Today, Zoo guests can see Zephyr and Turbo, spotted hyena siblings, along Center Street. They do their part to help show visitors what charismatic animals hyenas are—something we already knew. The "boys" greet their keepers with whoops and giggles, awaiting a training session and a treat of baby food or a lump of lard. Keepers use a back scratcher to offer a quick back scratch through the mesh, which has the hyenas yawning with contentment. Smart and playful, they like to grab each other’s tail and spin in circles, giggling.
When visitors see hyenas in person, they are often surprised to discover what attractive, amazing predators they are. Now that’s the reputation we want to promote!
While spotted hyenas are not threatened at the moment, things could change. Drought can have drastic effects on the food chain, from herbivores to carnivores. Conflict between humans and hyenas is also common whenever the two are competing for resources. Deforestation brings people and hyenas into closer quarters, and hyenas that prey on livestock are not likely to be treated like good neighbors. Spotted hyenas are still shot, poisoned, and trapped, even in protected areas of their range. Some are even shot as “fun” target practice. Education is needed to dispel the poor public perceptions of this useful carnivore.