In 1923, a striped hyena from the San Diego Zoo was highlighted in a movie about the effects of opium addiction, Human Wreckage —the image of the hyena represented a “wasted spirit.” Although we don’t consider any animal to be “miserable looking,” the movie’s producer paid our fledgling zoo $200 badly needed dollars!
Today, the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park are home to Sudanese striped hyenas. The three brothers and littermates, Puru, Tuli, and Tamu, are trained as animal ambassadors, meeting Zoo and Park guests up close during animal presentations and special tours and programs. Tamu can often be seen in the Zoo’s Camp Critters show!
When fortunate enough to see them, the striped hyenas are an amazing sight to behold, and our ambassadors have a profoundly positive effect on our guests. Although preconceived ideas have guests thinking that hyenas are ugly and vicious. once they see Puru and Tuli at the Safari Park, or Tamu at the Zoo, they change their mind immediately. A trainer heard a child leave one of the Park’s hyena animal encounters saying, "I don't think I will have bad dreams about hyenas anymore."
The striped hyena is not considered very aggressive and usually avoids contact with other animals. Misunderstood and viewed as dangerous or destructive, it is poisoned, trapped, or shot for supposedly preying on livestock or raiding farms. As populations of other large carnivores decline, so does the food they leave behind that striped hyenas scavenge. Some people even mistakenly believe the hyena's body parts can be used as medicine for humans. Once numerous, the striped hyena population is dwindling and has disappeared from some areas altogether. The Barbary hyena Hyaena hyaena barbara, which lives in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, is endangered.
Yet we have much to learn from hyenas. For example, they seem to be immune to certain diseases, such as rabies and anthrax. By studying their immune system, we might find cures for humans.