Archive for January, 2010

The Misunderstood Quirks Of The Hyena

January 27, 2010

I mentioned in my last post how unfairly treated Hyenas have been in human culture, and how they’ve been characterised into the clowns of the Africa plains. Lions are given this whole “King of the Jungle” baloney (they don’t even live in the jungle), Cheetahs are seen with an air of graceful compassion and respect while Leopards remain the ultimate feline ambusher. I’m not saying these animals don’t deserve their cherished status in the animal kingdom, but why is it that Hyenas are considered ugly, stupid and barbaric?

Let me shed a little light on these deftly intelligent and social mammals so that the image of the bumbling idiot from the Lion King will not be your only Hyena reference.

First I should be more specific and state that this piece is highlighting the Spotted Hyena, or Laughing Hyena, which is the most well known and biggest of the Hyena family (there is also the Brown Hyena, the Striped Hyena and the Aardwolf).


Brown Hyena

Found in the Savanna’s of Africa, they are a highly successful predator and scavenger that provide an essential role in the ecosystem. While other predators only consume the flesh of their prey, Hyenas are able to digest the entire animal, skin, bones and all. So they are kind of like the clean up guys of Africa…not leaving their leftovers just lying about the place…messing up the view.

And hear this, studies have shown that these little critters

Striped Hyena

Spotted Hyena

rival primates with their problem solving skills and general intelligence. Now I don’t exactly know what kind of problems these guys need to solve…but apparently they are pretty good at them, and once tamed can make excellent pets.

I reckon one of the reasons they get such a bad rap is that they sort of look like a dog…but one that’s been cross bred a bit too much and so the hind legs look to short for the front legs, and their heads look like the dogs in the Resident Evil films. Well Hyenas are not related to dogs at all, in fact they are closer to cats in evolutionary terms. One of my favourite books is “The Life Of Pi” by Yann Martel which tells the story of a boy who gets stranded on a boat with a Tiger, a Zebra, an Orangutan and a Hyena. The book is an empire of brilliant animal facts but amazingly it slips up numerous times with Hyena facts. First of all Martel refers to the Hyena more than once as a dog…which we now all know is incorrect. Another error he makes is that, he implies this male Hyena is more of a threat than if it were a female. Well actually Yann, female Hyenas are typically 12% larger and heavier than their male counterparts, and they tend to rule the roost with their large and social packs.

Other Hyena myths say that they only ever steal or scavenge their food…Not true. Hyenas are terrific hunters often bringing down medium sized prey like a Zebra or Wildebeast and sharing the kill with their pack. Yes they do steal and yes they do scavenge however it has been proven that lions steal from Hyenas just as much, if not more, than Hyenas steal from Lions.

Pay a little sympathy for Hyena mothers as well. So full of testosterone they are, that their female genitalia closely resembles a males. For a long time in fact, it was thought that Hyenas were hermaphrodites, not so…the female’s clitoris just looks like a penis. This can be somewhat of a problem when it comes to giving birth as Hyenas have the largest cubs relative to their mother’s weight in the animal kingdom. Combine this with an extremely narrow vagina…well you get the picture. So traumatic is birth that many result with the death of the mother and cubs. Once they are out there in the world however, they are extremely hardy fellows and impervious to many diseases.

So forget the cliché that Disney inflated on the world. These loyal and clever animals could run rings around Mufasa and Simba, their only crime lies in not being as pretty as their rivals and possessing a laugh that many people associate with human lunacy. We don’t have any Hyenas in Dublin Zoo, but if you do come across one sometime treat them with a little reverence. They deserve it.


The Misunderstood Quirks Of The Anteater

January 22, 2010


There are a couple of animals out there that I have a strong empathy for. Maybe I was one in another life, or maybe I just see a peculiar beauty in them that others don’t. The Hyena for example, is viewed by most with the same animosity by the public as vermin. And why? Because they aren’t as pretty as Leopards, or as noble looking as Wolves? Hyenas are highly intelligent, efficient hunters that rely on stealing and scavenging no more than lions or other savannah predators.

It will take another feature of mine to give the Hyena it’s due worth, today I’m focussing on a much more gentle predator…the Anteater.

Maybe it’s unfair to call the Anteater a predator, as that word conjures up thoughts of chasing or ambushing prey rather than simply licking them up with an extendable, neatly designed sticky tongue.

Before I go any further, I have to get a bit technical. An Anteater is not a specific animal; it’s a species of animal, like a cat or deer. There are many different types of Anteater, or at least, there are plenty of animals called Anteater though many of them are not necessarily related…but this is a light hearted piece of writing so lets not get bogged down with technicalities eh?

Giant Anteater

First we have the Giant Anteater, which is what I am going to focus on here. Found in the rainforest of Central and South America these critters live mainly solitary lives, bumbling from one termite mound to the next without a care in the world (except for the odd Jaguar that may fancy some larger than usual prey)


Next we have the Aardvark, which are also sometimes called Anteaters. These folks look somewhat like the offspring of a pig and a rabbit and are found on the plains of Africa. As it happens they are no relation of the Giant Anteater they just share plenty of the same features…so perhaps they shouldn’t be included here, still they are adorable in an ugly sort of way…


Next we have the Numbat, a wee little Termite muncher from Down Under. The Numbat can consume up to 20,000 termites in one day and back in the good aul’times Numbats were widespread across Australia. However when Europeans introduced the Red Fox in the 19th century numbers declined dramatically and now Numbats are confined to a few little pockets here and there.


Then we come to the Echidna, another Australian Anteater and again, only distantly related to our South American friend. Looking somewhat like a hedgehog (Sonic’s friend Knuckles was an Echidna), these are shy fellows and are one of the few mammals that lay eggs. They also have four headed penises…what is it with Australian animals?


The last Anteater on our list is the Pangolin, which look very similar to Armadillos (another favourite animal of mine). These nocturnal fellows are found in Africa and Asia and are known to curl up into a ball when they are threatened. A ball that can take more than three men to pull open no less….though why anyone would be that mean is beyond me.

However it is the Giant Anteater of the South American Rainforests that grab my attention and who I’d love as my Daemon (see the Golden Compass).

The fact that they live exclusively on a diet of Termites mean that they are quite difficult to keep in a zoo. Yet these gentle creatures are, like so many gorgeous animals, at risk of dying out due to loss of habitat and general human clumsiness.  According to the “Conservation on International Trade in Endangered Species” they are only listed as “Vulnerable” which I don’t understand, as they go on to say that there are only 5,000 of them left in the wild, and less than 100 of them in captivity in the US. Surely such small numbers translate to the critically endangered category?

As far as I know Dublin Zoo has never been graced with one of these long faced brutes so despite my affections, my only contact with them has been through a television, computer or books. They apparently do make good pets (if you can feed them) and have a highly evolved problem solving skills…breaking down Termite mounds requires a certain amount of intelligence don’t you know. Their primary mode of defence is their innately strong and sharp front claws which one unfortunate zoo worker felt the wrath of in 2007 with the only recorded human death due to an Anteater. 19-year-old Melisa Casco was mauled by the usually docile animal while taking part in a conservation project in Argentina. Tragic as this incident was, the Anteater should not be condemned…think of how many people a year are killed by dogs, yet people do not tar every dog with the “killer” brush.

The Artist Salvador Dali and His pet Anteater in Paris

I’ll leave you with the audacious poem by Roald Dahl, from his book “Dirty Beasts” read by some dude called Alan…but remember it’s only fiction. It is highly unlikely the events in this poem would ever happen…

Sorry It has Been So Long

January 22, 2010

I have abandoned my blog recently like a disobedient child. This was due to a few reasons-a touch of writers block, a return to full time work and a preference for writing a bit of fiction that wouldn’t really suit the style of this blog.

However when I logged on the other day for the first time in months, I had four comments waiting to be moderated, and still an average of 500 views a day. I must be doing something right…so I will try to get back to the habit of updating on a more regular basis. If anyone would like me to cover anything in particular I’m more than open to suggestion.



AKA aaaaahhhhshark