The more inhuman an animal gets, the more trouble we have with empathizing with them. Apes and monkeys look very similar to us, so we have an easier time accepting them as living beings capable of expressing emotions similar to ours. But the further away animals get from a humanoid look, the more trouble we seem to have recognizing they possess emotions such as ours. Creatures such as reptiles, insects, and fish are almost thought of as monsters by the public, unfairly characterized as mindless eating machines or entities that rely on primal instinct.
This is where hyenas draw their bad reputation from. They certainly aren’t the most pleasant animals to look at. Their hunchbacked appearance, their sloping awkward looking gait seems menacing compared to similar looking animals like dogs. Rather than being colorful, their furry hides seem dull. Whenever they open their mouths, they reveal rows of bone crunching, razor sharp teeth that you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of. Their behavior seems to hammer this home, considering how they scavenge the dead, their cackling cry eerily reminiscent of a human laugh that sounds chilling. Hyenas seem monstrous and so, we as a species loathe them, considering them sneaky, ugly creatures cowardly living off the kills of other species.
But hyenas, like other so-called ‘monsters’ of the world, are unfairly judged by their appearance and behavior that seems alien to us but is perfectly normal in the natural world. They too possess emotions as any other living creature and one has to only have a look at the Maasai Mara’s North Clan to see the complex emotions and social interactions on display that afford a look at these creatures through a non-violent lens.
The North Clan is a large clan of hyenas that carry the dynamics and antics of a massive family unit. They are lead by Waffles, the large matriarchal female who is the biggest and strongest of the clan’s members. When one watches her for an extended period of time, you can quite clearly see there is more to her than meets the eye. Waffles acts as the stern general of her massive troop of seventy seven individuals, clearly the most mature of her clan. She is cool, calm, and clearly experienced, leading her troops on hunts and managing the day to day social structure of the clan. She’s at once the queen and the mother, showcasing the kind of attitude you’d expect from one owning such a position.
But there is warmth to her as well. She clearly has a strong bond with the individuals in her group, treating them with affection while making sure they don’t get into trouble. She tolerates hyena cubs bounding all over her with the grace of any long suffering parent but she hardly ever snaps at them or treats them badly, showing she has a love for these small hyenas. Waffles is full of personality but one has to pay attention to truly see it, watching the subtle details of how she carries herself and her interactions with her fellows to see the regal queen beneath her furry exterior.
In contrast to Waffles’s almost introverted self, the hyena cubs are bundles of energy. They bounce around the den site, causing no end of mischief in whatever they get up to. They’re very funny to watch, especially in their interactions with the older members of the clan. Often, the cubs will try their luck with other clan members, attacking them or trying to play with adult hyenas. Some hyenas try to ignore them, while others get angry and chase them off. But sometimes, adults will engage the little ones in play and it’s a joy to behold. One scene happened recently where a male of the clan was mobbed by a group of cubs. He proceeded to engage them in play, lying and mock wrestling with the cubs, as they jumped all over him. It was a cute, lovely moment and showcased how loving the hyenas can be, in there own way.
There are other characters of the clan besides Waffles herself, each full of personality. There is little Slothbear, a young male cub who often gets into trouble, bounding off to find adventure and whining as he’s dragged back to safety by his supervisors. There is Soup, Waffles’s young granddaughter who often challenges her grandmother but quickly backs off. There is Sauer, the mother of little Slothbear, confident and possessing quite the ego, always trying to hog food for herself while possessing a general aura that suggests a sense of pride buried deep within her. They’re each memorable but they require a bit of patience to truly notice their emotions.
Their emotions showcase the complex social dynamics on display, showcasing how hyenas have a well organized clan hierarchy, contrasting with their infamous image as mindless eating machines. In hyena society, females are bigger and stronger than the males. As a result, they reign supreme at the top of the pecking order, hence why Waffles, the oldest female of North Clan, is top dog. From birth, other hyena females are designated into this rigid social structure, with daughters of the matriarch eyeing the throne as they grow older. Sauer zealously guards her food because she’s able to do so, unlike lesser hyenas of the group who have their food snatched or bullied away due to their lower ranking.
The North Clan is one enormous family, full of complex relationships and standout personalities, all working together to make sure their clan lasts another day. They run a full gambit of emotions just from watching them, showcasing fear, bravery, humor, and even love. They are a family, in all sense of the word, and one gets the sense they truly do care about each other as they work together to survive in the dry plains of the Maasai Mara.
Written by: Jake McDaniel
Featured image by: Tristan Dicks
I got off on the right foot with hyenas since I heard Jamie Paterson talking about Waffles with such passionate interest and tenderness. And therefore found myself vigorously defending them to a friend (who should have known better) the other day – when she (precisely) said how she disliked them and found them ugly.