June 04, 2008
A Kind Word For Fisi*
By David E. Petzal and Phil Bourjaily
*Which is Swahili for hyena.
I haven't read anything nice about the hyena for ages, so I guess it's up to me to fill the void. I've seen a number of them at work and play in Africa, and there are few creatures that are odder or more interesting. Hyenas have been around for many millions of years, and were once far more widespread than they are now. There was a European hyena that weighed 400 pounds (twice what a big modern one weighs) and a long-legged North American hyena that could run 60 miles an hour.
Today, the hyena is the most common carnivore in Africa. It is a skilled hunter, has a bite far stronger than a lion's, can eat carrion, and is fiercely territorial. The hyena is Africa's Minister of Death. Man or beast, when you perish, Fisi will pay you a call. Or he may help you along beforehand. What the werewolf is to Europe, the were-hyena is to Africa.
Lions and hyenas hate each other, and there is nothing a big male lion would rather do than kill hyenas. However, when that same lion is old, toothless, and unable to fight, the hyenas come and eat him alive.
I have fond memories of two hyenas in particular. One was running ahead of our Land Rover at night in Zambia in 1981. It had either just eaten an entire zebra, or was pregnant, or both, because it had the biggest gut of any animal I've ever seen, and its frantically churning legs could not move its massive stomach out of the way until the last second. It was a scene from the Roadrunner and the Coyote.
The other was a baby hyena peering out of the mouth of a culvert in Kruger National Park. It couldn't have been more than a few weeks old, was coal black, had an intelligent, curious face, and beady little eyes that stared without fear. It is possibly the cutest animal I've ever seen.
It would grow up to be a monster, of course--but an interesting one.