Animal Studies Bibliography

Glickman, Stephen E. 1995. The spotted hyena from Aristotle to the Lion King: Reputation is everything. Social Research 62(3): 501-538.

Hyenas have a very negative image in Western culture. These beliefs include that hyenas are hermaphrodites with sex organs changing each year, are scavengers, are smelly and ugly, trick their prey, are cowardly, and disturb human graves to eat our remains and threaten people in other ways. These ideas can be found in popular films, magazine cartoons, and literature. Aristotle rejected the idea that hyenas are hermaphrodites, although he failed to distinguish among types of hyena (e.g. spotted versus striped), and argued that hyenas are cowards because of the size of their hearts in relation to their bodies. Aristotle also offered stories of hyenas tricking their prey--for example, by making noises like human vomiting to attract dogs. Pliny the Elder, 400 years later, also rejected the hermaphroditism myth, offered a long list of medical uses for hyena body parts, repeated Aristotle's stories of trickery, and added that hyenas have some sort of magical power to make an animal freeze and be unable to respond/flee. The author of the Physiologus interpreted hyenas through a Christian lens, rejecting them on moral grounds because s/he claimed they changed sex. The bestiaries, animal stories in the Middle Ages, perpetuated this revived myth of hermaphroditism and emphasized scaring people with accounts and drawings of hyenas eating corpses. In the 16th and 17th centuries, more scientific accounts appeared from British travelers. These writers still failed to distinguish among the types of hyena, but they did reject the myth of yearly sex-changing. Literature of the time, however, perpetuated this myth, as well as focusing on how hyenas used vocalizations to lure and trick their prey. Scientists from the 18th century to the present have identified the different types of hyena and have proven that their hermaphroditism is a myth. These scientists focused on the idea of the hyena as scavenger, which had been part of its image since Aristotle. In fact, accounts of hyenas as scavengers were usually wrong, with viewers assuming lions had killed the animal hyenas were eating, whereas in fact, carcasses shared by the two animals are usually killed by hyenas, and lions are the scavengers. Modern thinkers emphasize the hyena's supposed cowardice (based not on their interaction with other animals but on their response to hunters) and debate over whether a hyena could be tamed and kept as a pet. African attitudes toward hyenas are negative as well, but focus on the hyena as comical and stupid, greedy, aggressive, tricky, smelly, and hermaphroditic, leaving out the ugly and cowardly traits Westerners assign to them. The change in Western views over time suggests that attitudes toward an animal are affected by human concerns--thus, for example, the most considerable concern over the hyena's hermaphroditism came during the early Christian era and the Middle Ages, which viewed it as a moral offense. Thus it is not only misinformation that shapes an animal's reputation. This theory is supported by the considerable cultural variation--for example, many African tribes refuse to eat hyena meat, considering it unclean, whereas ancient Egyptians raised hyenas domestically for food. Similarly, hyenas are considered ugly for traits that we consider attractive in other animals, including a large head (attractive in babies) and short hindlegs (attractive in bears). The perception of hyenas as ugly was likely shaped by media portrayals. In short, our attitudes about hyenas as based on our human concerns being projected onto the animal world. Scientists, due to their knowledge of hyenas' interesting and highly social behavior, their familiarity with hyenas, and their bonding with the hyenas they work with, have very positive attitudes toward hyenas, in stark contrast with public views. This difference is likely because the public and scientists carry a different set of images in [their] heads. The negative image is important because it keeps people from working to maintain hyena populations and habitats.


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