Male Zawadi is one of the many spotted hyenas who were part of a 30-year study in the Berkeley hills. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Male Zawadi is one of the many spotted hyenas who were part of a 30-year study in the Berkeley hills. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Tucked away in the Berkeley Hills is a swath of land where females are in charge and always get first dibs on dinner.

It’s no feminist utopia — just UC Berkeley’s captive colony of spotted hyenas. The noisy animals, whose whoops are audible from the fire trails, have been fixtures at the Field Station for the Study of Behavior, Ecology, and Reproduction for decades. But when the researchers who study them lost their funding, the animals had to start finding new homes. In a couple weeks the colony will shutter for good.

The 30-year project was one of a kind. In 1985, UC Berkeley biologist/psychologist Stephen Glickman, and animal behaviorist Laurence Frank, brought 20 newborn spotted hyenas from the Maasai Mara region of Kenya to Berkeley. What followed was unprecedented research on hormones, reproduction, and social behavior.

Particularly fascinating to the scientists is the female hyenas’ unusual anatomy. Due to exposure to androgens including testosterone in the womb, females develop large external genitalia that look like the males’ and that similarly become erect when the animal is excited.

The organs are often referred to as “pseudo-penises,” but that’s not technically accurate, said Mary Weldele, the research analyst and colony manager.

“I think there’s a hesitance for people to say clitoris,” she speculated. “But it’s on a female! That’s her clitoris.”

But unlike any other mammalian clitoris, the organ is used for urinating, mating, and — because the vagina is fused shut — giving birth.  Because the clitoral opening is so small, firstborns often suffocate during labor.

The colony provided scientists with a rare opportunity to observe hyenas mating, a process that is quite an endeavor for the male, who has to mount the female and blindly attempt to insert his external genitalia into her similar organ.

And when copulation occurs, the female has her pick of mates. Females are always dominant over males in the strictly hierarchical hyena social system. Within the sexes there are also specific social rankings, which determine who gets to eat when.

“They start fighting for dominance within seconds of being born,” Weldele said, but the males inherit their mother’s rank until they reach sexual maturity.

The colony has donated seven hyenas to the Oakland Zoo, where the animals live in a wooded ravine and enjoy splashing in water. Photo: Oakland Zoo
The Berkeley Hills colony has donated seven hyenas to the Oakland Zoo, where the animals live in a wooded ravine and enjoy splashing in water. Photo: Oakland Zoo

When the scientists brought the initial newborn cubs to Berkeley, nobody knew if they’d develop the same kind of linear social system that occurs in the wild.

“Here we had ten hyenas who really hadn’t witnessed adults or knew what their social rank was,” Weldele said. “So what would happen when they came here? Well, when they reached puberty everything fell into place. The males went to the bottom, the females were on top.”

The people who have been involved in the colony for all or some of the past 30 years are saying goodbye not just to the project, but to animals they named and got to know well. Hyenas tend to be portrayed as grungy and conniving creatures, but the researchers describe them as smart and often affectionate animals with highly distinct personalities.

“They’re just wonderful animals,” Weldele said. “They’re intelligent, they like to make eye contact, and they recognize you. On the other hand, if you do something they don’t like, they remember that too.”

Hyenas are born with full sets of teeth, which are notoriously capable of crunching through bone. It’s not uncommon for one hyena to seriously injure another. But the animals — all offspring of the original Kenyan cubs — are content to spend most of their time splashing around in pools of water or getting massaged by the wooden backscratchers that the researchers bought in Chinatown.

The most popular of erroneous hyena representations is, of course, in Disney’s The Lion King – whose artists actually visited the Berkeley colony to sketch the hyenas. Ironically, it’s the scientists who can be credited for one of the biggest inaccuracies in the animations.

“In the early days of the project, veterinary dentists thought it best to blunt their canines so that if they fought they couldn’t do much damage,” Weldele said. “Well that was a terrible idea, and in fact it’s against the law now. And when the Disney people were here, we forgot to tell them.” So the immortalized cartoons lack the sharp front teeth found in real spotted hyenas.

Frank jokes that The Lion King set back hyena conservation efforts. But the movie certainly sparked an interest in the animals, and the colony received many requests from zoos in the following years.

Currently there are five hyenas from the colony at the Oakland Zoo.

“They’ve done well,” and are popular with patrons, said Director of Animal Care, Conservation, and Research, Colleen Kinzley. “Sometimes people even have a negative view of hyenas because of what they’ve seen in movies. But then they see these interesting animals that are very social. They have a lot of cool vocalizations.”

Those vocalizations include the famous “laugh,” documented in many anthropomorphic depictions. (Watch the video below to hear it.)

Hyenas do make a laughing sound, but it’s an expression of excitement, not amusement, Weldele said.

“You’re going to kill? You’re being chased? You’re going to giggle,” she said.

Research Analyst Mary Weldele massages a hyena with a wooden human back scratcher. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Research Analyst Mary Weldele massages a hyena with a wooden back scratcher bought in Chinatown. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Research Analyst Mary Weldele massages a hyena with a wooden back scratcher bought in Chinatown. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Over the years, researchers spanning the disciplines have studied the hyenas. Because it’s the only sizable captive colony of spotted hyenas — at its largest there were 43 — requests came from far afield, and the researchers granted permission to most projects that didn’t put too much stress on the animals.

“We picked up a lot of collaborators, many of them at the medical school at UCSF,” Glickman said. “They introduced us to the medical relevance of the hyena research. It took us in directions we’d never anticipated.”

The implications for human medicine are wide-reaching, he said. The research suggests, for example, that hyena genitalia are produced by a mechanism similar to that which exists in men with hormone-refractory prostate cancer. And the fact that female hyenas can reproduce despite their high concentration of androgens holds potential for women with polycystic ovaries, Glickman said.

The study also exposed the strength of the androgen androstenedione, and its relation to aggressiveness in both hyenas and humans. Previously the hormone was dismissed as weak, allowing baseball player Mark McGuire to purchase and use it the year he set the home run record, Glickman said.

In another long-term hormone study, the researchers gave pregnant females anti-androgen drugs to find out whether decreased circulation of male hormones resulted in female cubs with more typical anatomies.

“There were some interesting results,” Weldele said. “It wasn’t like a female suddenly had a normal internal vagina. In fact her clitoris became even bigger. Those females were able to give birth without stillborns. And we noticed that the males’ penises were smaller and shaped the wrong way.”

But many questions remain unanswered.

“It would be nice to figure out what’s going on,” Weldele said. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen again. Funding just has become extremely difficult for anyone to get, especially in behavior and with such unusual animals.”

For years, the project was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, and later survived on a grant from the National Science Foundation. That funding dried up in 2013, and UC Berkeley paid for the study until maintaining the colony became too pricy. At the beginning of the study the care cost was less than $5 per hyena per day, but it rose to $14 by the end.

Several animals have been placed elsewhere already, and the final hyenas will go to their new homes in the next week or two. Locations range from a wildlife refuge in Southern California to Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.

The 12 hyenas that remain at the colony haven’t quite kept up their typical gibbering and gabbing, Weldele said.

“They’re so socially facilitated in what they do, so they’re much more subdued now,” she said. “I’m glad they’re going to good places, but this is going to be hard.”

The spotted hyenas of Berkeley, and why they giggle (06.15.10)
Hear those hyenas (04.05.10)

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...