Born Free USA Global Field Projects
The hyenas at Ensessakotteh
The following was written by Stephen Brend, the wildlife center's director.
Back in March, when we were asked to rescue a young hyena, our hearts sank. Hyenas are notoriously difficult to look after and their rehabilitation equally problematic. But we could not say no, and so Matama entered our lives: the first hyena in our care, ever in the history of Born Free.
Matama arrived as a dark chocolate coloured, bear-cub like thing weighing just 3 kg. Charming and boisterous from the outset, he soon had the run of the place. That situation could not last; he had to have animal company and not rely on us to be his entire surrogate family.
The advice we received was to put him with a dog. That sounded fair enough, so we contacted the dog-rehoming network and ended up with a female puppy who, while terribly sweet, was completely not hyena proof. Now we had a mischievous hyena and a needy puppy on our hands. The problems were mounting....
The next thing that happened was that we were told of a very large dog in urgent need of a home as, having bitten someone, he was being threatened with destruction. The family caring for the dog felt that living with a hyena would be slightly better than being put down, and that's how we came to receive Nolan: a big 45kg/100lb mastiff cross. He was the perfect choice of companion for a rambunctious young hyena.
Unfortunately, even that did not solve the problem, as I then fell in love with Nolan and have spent the last six months scheming to try to get him out of Matama's enclosure and onto my couch.
There was an upside, though. The family who donated Nolan fell in love with the puppy, so we did a dog-swap. At least that was one problem off of our hands. Also, to be fair, Nolan and Matama get on very well. They have the run of three quarters of an acre, all to themselves. They play tag and search out scents together. The big dog provides the necessary socialisation and discipline to prepare Matama for a life with other hyenas, who you can guarantee won't always be as friendly.
In keeping with the old saying "what happens once can only happen once, but what happens twice will surely happen a third time," never having had a hyena before Matama, we now have three in our care. The latest two came to us from Haramaya University, in the eastern part of Ethiopia.
One of the new hyenas is an adult female. We have named her "Tigeste," which means patience. This seems the most appropriate name for an animal that had endured years (we cannot be sure exactly how long, but certainly more than four years) in a small, barren cage, in which all she could do was pace back and forth. It was heartbreaking to see.
We were all delighted when we received permission from the University authorities to transfer her to Ensessakotteh; it had only taken 18 months of lobbying! However, our delight was interrupted by the adventure of catching and transporting her.
On the allotted day, the first thing that went wrong was that the needle on the syringe bent rather than sticking into her. You don't get too many chances to catch an animal, so a swift recovery had to be made. Then, even when injected, she never fully succumbed to the anaesthetic. That, however, was our fault. We had estimated her weight to be 30kg, when in fact she weighed 43 kg. No wonder she was twitchy! Still, we managed to get her into her travel box and, ten hours later, we arrived at Ensessakotteh.
We released her into her new enclosure the next day. The moment of release was, surprisingly, an anti-climax of the highest order. While we were all delighted to be able to offer her a new home, she did not want to leave the travel box. Of course, we were sympathetic; we had shaken her very world. All that she had known for over four years was gone—and how was she to know what lay in front of her?
Fortunately, her nervousness was short lived. She left the box after a couple of hours and immediately disappeared under a bush. We had worried that she would start to pace again, that routine seemingly so ingrained in her while she was at the zoo, but she never has. From the moment she first walked on grass, she has appeared settled and relaxed. She does not come close to us, but we do not blame her for that. Why would she have any fond feelings towards people?
Last night, I went down to see her. She was exploring her enclosure, sniffing around and scratching occasionally. Then she just sat down and watched me as I watched her. Truly, where she is now (both physically and mentally) is a world away from where she was just two weeks ago.
Sadly, our third hyena's world hasn't changed as much, for we fear s/he is blind. (I write s/he because, with young hyenas, it is very hard to determine sex.) The University said she had been at their zoo for about three months. This means she was most likely caught before she should have been weaned off of her mother. Whether or not it was this lack of maternal nutrition that affected her eye sight, we cannot tell. What is obvious is that she can barely discriminate between light and dark. She has even been nicknamed Uwerr, which means "blind."
We are now contacting eye-specialists to see if the condition is operable. It may just be cataracts—in which case, it would mean that she has a future, hopefully living with Matama until they are old enough to be set free.
The eye doctor should be here in November. We are holding our breath until then and are just trying each day to get her to be a little bit more relaxed—a little bit more confident—but it is hard. Each time she bumps into something, it gives her a fright. If it happens to be one of our legs that she bangs into, then she sometimes reacts with a snap...
That, then, is the story of our three hyenas. Matama, the first—and the one we never wanted—today appears to be the happiest hyena in the world, ever. Tigeste is also a joy; the happiest of endings. Sadly, though, we can only talk about two out of three successes, as little Uwerr remains a huge worry.