The secret spotted hyenas of UC Berkeley

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I found out about the colony in a roundabout way. There wasn't a press release announcing its inception, nor were there any articles advertising its whereabouts.

This, it turns out, was a conscious choice. UC Berkeley's spotted hyena colony (about 30 animals kept right by Tilden Park) was something of a secret.

At grad school I researched spotted hyenas and was fascinated by their matriarchal social structure, a complete counterargument against a typical appreciation of mammalian gender. Females are larger than their male counterparts, and almost universally they are dominant. They have a pseudo-phallus. And all the studies I was reading seemed to point back to the same man, again and again, a scientist out of UC Berkeley: Laurence Frank.

The same "Laurence of the Hyenas" mentioned in Robert Sapolsky's brilliant book, A Primate's Memoir. And most of his studies were conducted at the UC Berkeley spotted hyena colony.

Frank was still at Berkeley. Being a San Francisco person with balls I figured, I'm gonna find this guy, and I'm gonna make him talk to me. It didn't work out like that-- I never got to talk to him. But I did get to visit the colony of hyenas he started. Although, finding my way in wasn't easy.

Calling UC Berkeley and asking to be connected to their hyena colony was just as ridiculous as it sounds. It's a huge institution. And for a month or so, I was starting to think I'd never find any way in. But then, and I can't remember how I found it, I dug up an old syllabus (from the early 2000's) for a psychology course that included a field trip to the colony. And it had a phone number, in case you got lost.

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I called. Again and again, I called. Always, always I got the answering machine. I called more times than can strictly be considered polite. Eventually, and I got the feeling that it was reluctantly, I got a call back.

Hyena keeper and my contact, Mary Weldele, told me it would be difficult to find, but yes, the unassuming chain link fence with the intercom was indeed the entrance. She was right. The colony compound was nestled into the side of the Berkeley Hills, and all but invisible from the road.

When I shook her hand, I sensed reluctance. She must be uncomfortable with me, I thought, which was fair. I had basically stalked her place of work until I was let in. Later, I'd find out that I'd just shaken a hand with a big toe grafted to where a thumb had once been-- it had been bitten off by one of the hyenas.

Weldele had been part of the spotted hyena operation since its inception. Though she was not one of the scientists who helped capture baby hyenas from outside the Masai Mara, she did offer her home to them until proper lodgings could be secured. "Pee everywhere," she told me, and I believed her.

Her love for the animals was obvious. It was also contagious. She knew each one of their names. She knew their personalities. Though a goodly portion of what could be learned from the animals was learned during necropsy, technically what the compound was an animal testing facility. They studied their physiology, evolution, ontogeny and social behavior.

The way the hyenas were doted upon, an existence complete with birthday parties and pinatas full of meat, making the compound feel more like a summer camp for apex predators than anything else. Their reluctance to euthanize the animals may have been part of the reason they lost their funding. Mostly, the animals were euthanized for for health reasons, with respect to their quality of life, if an animal had, say, cancer. Waiting for these circumstances among highly evolved survivalists made for slow progress with necropsies.

When I asked her how she felt about animal testing, she held up her hand. Without animal testing, she told me, the surgery that allowed for the use of her dominant hand would not be possible. So, yes, she did believe in animal testing. The moral of that story, she told me was not to ban animal testing. It was: "Never play tug of war with a hyena. You will lose."

She allowed me to take pictures, and even in one special case to pet one of the hyenas through the especially, narrowly woven chain link fence. The narrowness of the link was to prevent the hyenas from biting off each others' tongues, which was a real thing that had happened. I was allowed to pet this particular hyena, Rocco, because she trusted him. He pressed himself against the fence, his jaws facing away, his eyes closed. This was not the first time he had been pet, that much was very clear. His fur was rough and bristly, and he growled, which Weldele told me was a good thing. Hyenas laugh when they're anxious, and growl the way that cats purr.

The colony lost its funding, and Mary has spent months and years finding proper homes for the animals. Most are in zoos. It's been hard, she told me, and I believe her. She just lost twenty or so friends. She could visit them, or some of them, but the circumstances will never be the same. It'll never be such close quarters with the hyenas she'd help raise from cubs. I only met them twice, and I feel her sadness as if it were my own. I'll never get to see them that way, either.

The pictures shown here are my own, from my final visit to the colony. I know that for most, spotted hyenas are a tough sell-- made tougher by their role as iconic villains in The Lion King. Ironically, Disney animators did their life drawing from the very same, beloved animals I met. (The next time you watch that movie, look at the hyena's teeth: their canines are dull. This is not because spotted hyenas have dull canines in the wild-- it is because the keepers clipped their teeth to try and keep them from hurting one another.)

The hyenas I met were terrifying and beautiful. They make eye contact and they hold it. It was too bad that, for safety, the compound had to be kept secret while it existed. I wonder if more people had been allowed to visit it, to meet the hyenas as I did, and to know them as Mary does, if it would have ever have been dissolved.