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 Stories for April 8, 1998

Learning How To Keep a Hyena Happy
Life in the Colony: Rocko, Tuffy, Winnie and Merlin Are Having a Barrel of Fun

by Jean Smith, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 8, 1998

As Kathy Moorhouse’s fingers reach through the mesh to scratch furry heads and necks, one animal pushes through his companions, demanding attention with the loud whine of a spoiled child. It’s Winnie, the big baby of the group, and he wants his cuddles now. Moorhouse, the animal research superviser, laughs, digging her fingers into his furry neck. Nope, she’s not petting a nice little doggie. She’s petting a 90-pound spotted hyena, who’s loving every second of it.

Berkeley’s hyena colony was founded in 1985 by psychology researcher Lawrence Frank and psychology professor Steve Glickman to study the hyenas’ complex social behavior. Nestled in the Berkeley hills, 20 animals, all collected near Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve, formed the original study group. Now the colony has 35 animals, many of them second and third generation, reared at the colony. Researchers now study the hyena’s unusual hormone chemistry, finding that females dominate by virtue of traditionally male characteristics: size and the presence of testosterone.

For accurate data, healthy, active animals are essential. So, just how does one keep a hyena happy?

Staff members arrive for work at 7 a.m. every day, and their first duty is checking all the animals. At morning meetings, they discuss the animals’ health and which animals need to be moved for the day’s research activities. Looking carefully at the vet charts, one can see that hyena Tuffy’s last name is Glickman. And then there’s Rocko Glickman...and Merlin Glickman.

The hyenas are housed in 17 separate enclosures attached to sleeping rooms. To prevent hyena boredom, a variety of enrichment tools are used.

“They love pools,” says Moorhouse, pointing to a huge galvanized steel tub in one of the indoor enclosures. “I’ve seen five members of one group in their pool at the same time. It’s hard to continue your work when you are watching them play in the water.”

Other enrichment devices include blue polyethylene barrels, which the hyenas enjoy throwing around with their powerful jaws. Before the staff learned to chain the barrels to trees, the hyenas were adept at maneuvering their barrels into corners, pushing their huge bodies inside and becoming stuck.

“Tires used to be play toys, but the hyenas would shred them. I don’t know how she did it, but one day, this female had the steel belt around her body. Luckily I was able to take some clippers in, and I just put my hand through the fence and cut it off. She just stood there while I cut,” recalls Moorhouse.

Hyenas have a bad reputation for being dirty scavengers, skulking around and stealing kills from lions. While a clan will drive a lion off its kill if they sense the opportunity, this is not the norm. They are actually deadly efficient predators, capable of running down zebra and wildebeest, coordinating movements to isolate and attack their prey.

Zebra, however, are not plentiful in Berkeley and the hyenas have their meals hand-delivered. Brian Lowe, an animal technician, breaks open the ground meat and forms fist-size balls. Immediately, Dusty gulps hers down. Her next course, a chunk of pork neck bones, vanishes with a crunch.

Iris, a 4-month old cub, is the newest member of the colony. Shy, knock-kneed and very appealing, she holds her meat ball with fat baby paws. Lately, she’s been introduced to two older cubs, in what Moorhouse calls a play group. Researchers hope this play group will become a future unit.

As other colony members are fed, excited hyena voices float over the canyon. Rather than hideous giggles and whoops, they sound more like comedian Tim Allen exclaiming over his newest power tool.

Moorhouse introduces Floyd Ponce, a member of the hyena colony staff for the past two years. With a gentle voice, Ponce maneuvers Rocko to an outside pen for feeding, separating him from the more aggressive females.

“Floyd has the hyena touch,” says Moorhouse. “It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. We’ve had hyenas take a dislike to certain individuals. If you set yourself up in an antagonistic situation with them, they don’t forget,” says Moorhouse, giving Merlin Glickman a tickle on the chin.

“People who work up here really like it,” she says. “Hyenas are very interesting and challenging to work with because you really have to have a relationship with them.”

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