Hyena Tea Party

Arriving early in the morning at the garbage dump, I saw three sets of those teddy bear ears pointed at me in the gloom. The hyenas recognised me before I recognised them and stayed prostrate on the ground while I went over to a straggly-looking Habuka tree and sat on some relatively clear dirt.
One of the sets of ears rose up and its owner started walking towards me; Willi. It’s hard to describe what it feels like when a wild animal initiates contact with you for reasons other than food, but you do feel special. And Willi strolled over and then stood in front of me like a child who’s excited to see you but then doesn’t know what to do next.
After a pause, and some encouragement from me, he decided to sniff me and tried biting my sleeve. He had some gunk on his mouth from the garbage so I gently pushed him away, but I think I hurt his feelings because he went and chewed on a branch of the Habuka tree. So, feeling guilty, I produced his plastic comb and offered that to him to chew, which he did with relish. Eventually, he’d chewed so much of the comb that I let him have at it and he put the remainder between his paws and chewed it like a rib bone.
At that point, some kids came running down the track, so the hyenas left and went off to wait for the garbage truck in the relative safety of the surrounding farmland. I left too, encouraging Willi to come along so that he wouldn’t have anything thrown at him. The wound on his rump was bigger, and the hyena man said that it was someone with a muncha (sickle-headed axe) who inflicted it. Certainly looked like it was done with a blade but maybe it was another hyena bite.
Willi left his comb behind and followed and then overtook me and led me to where there were three other hyenas lying around, all facing the direction of the dump. I knew they were listening to the garbage truck, wherever it happened to be at, but my mere human hearing is not as keen as a hyena’s so it took a while before I heard the truck myself.
Once the truck had arrived and was unloading the container of trash, the hyenas were listening intently. I have no idea what there criteria are for risking a trip to the dump while there are people there but apparently the sounds coming from the dump were not promising enough and the hyenas, Willi included, got up to leave.
Following a hyena has its difficulties, not least of which is that they have no problem squeezing through small openings in thorn hedges. Once through they continue on their way, while the hapless anthropologist runs along the hedgerow looking for an opening. I found one and was through and to my surprise Willi was standing on the other side. He turned and trotted through the middle of the farmland which was towering maize a few months earlier, but which was bare at that time of year.
We came to another hedgerow and, to my relief, Willi didn’t poke his way through the smaller hole but went along the hedgerow and led me through a nice wide gap that only snagged my sleeves.
Willi broke into a canter, looking over his shoulder, and I thought he might have had enough of being followed but when I maintained a casual walk, he stopped and waited for me. Dare I say it, it was like he was giving me a hurry-on, which is pretty understandable considering the danger posed by farmers in these parts.
He led me down to the creek where it was crossed by an irrigation canal, but paused at the crossing and went back uphill to stand in some bushes. Stupidly, I assumed he was afraid to cross there out of fear of slipping off the side of the canal, so I went down to the crossing and reassured him. Hesitantly, he came down and started to cross and, when he was almost across, both he and I looked up and saw a farmer appearing at the top of the slope on the other side. Willi was off the canal like a shot and darted along the creek bed and into the cover of some bushes. The farmer, oblivious to what was going on, descended the slope and we exchanged pleasantries and he was on his way. I felt pretty guilty having reassured Willi, when he had obviously heard footsteps approaching.
I climbed the slope and waited and, before long, Willi came out of the trees and straight towards me. He sniffed at me and I let him bite my sleeve for a bit and then we were off. I was certain he wanted me to follow this time but when he dropped down into an irrigation ditch lined with trees, crawled under some branches and then disappeared, I was content to let him go. But he reappeared under the branches, coming towards me at which point a branch was dislodged and fell across his back. Willi bolted out from under his assailant with his tail between his legs and stood, staring at the branch. Then he went up and sniffed at it and touched it to make sure it was inanimate. He looked at me and crawled under the branches again and I decided to follow, clambering over the top of them. That’s how us humans traverse such obstacles.
Willi was waiting on the other side and when I was through, he led me down to a low hole in some rushes in a creek bed and disappeared into the hole. His den! I knew the main hyena den was about 50 metres downstream in the dense rushes and wild sugar cane but wasn’t aware that there were any dens in this part of the creek. But for various reasons (the creek is runoff from the town and hygeine is an issue with me; there might have been mothers and cubs in there who would be a little freaked out by the appearance of an anthropologist) I declined to follow and sat on the slope, listening to the rustling in the dense undergrowth.
That was when the most extraordinary thing happened. Willi appeared at the hole and looked at me. He came out and turned around and then disappeared into the hole once again. I sat and listened and then to my astonishment, Willi appeared again at the entrance. I couldn’t help imagining he had a child’s tea set down there and wanted me to come in for a pretend tea party. He climbed up to where I was sitting and sniffed at, and even nipped at, my face but not so fast that I couldn’t pull away. I tore off an old cornstalk and offered that and he bit down hard. Then after a little game of tug-o-war, I let him have the stalk and he went towards the hole with the stalk in his mouth, looking over his shoulder at me as he went. He disappeared into the hole once again and I decided, rather than taunt him, I should get up and leave. But on my way home through the cemetery, I couldn’t help wondering what a hyena tea party might look like.


1 thought on “Hyena Tea Party

  1. Seems I’ve discovered this blog too late! Ah well, I hope you still check the comments.

    I love the description of the spotted hyena’s ears as being like a teddy bear’s. And Willi does seem to be inviting you into his den! What a wonderful tale—although I think that should you have gone down there, things would have become dull (or violent? Let’s hope not, although I suppose it can’t be ruled out) rather quickly.

    If memory serves, in your final blog post, you write that our two species want to communicate, but don’t know how. It certainly seems that way. From your blog and others writing and film work on the spotted hyena, it seems they have a concept of friendship that crosses species lines, and that their social relations are quite malleable, thanks to their large forebrains. I hope someday that we can know and communicate at least a little better with these handsome and amiable animals, and that that day will come while Willi and the other hyenas you met are still alive. This is an absurd and sentimental hope, I know, but I can’t help it, and I would be surprised if a number of your other readers did not share it.

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