Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Disney to Right a Twenty Year Wrong: Hyenas Coming to the Animal Kingdom

For over 30 years, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have kept the world’s only captive research colony of Spotted Hyenas.  But now funding for the colony is running out, and the people who have grown attached to these wonderful and grossly misunderstood animals are looking for good homes for them.  And from what we now understand, three of these hyenas will be making there way to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  And hopefully these three can begin to repair some of the damage done by a more famous fictional trio of hyenas.

There are many reasons to study hyenas, including their odd anatomy, intense socialization and an apparent natural immunity to anthrax.  But for the last three decades, this colony has been funded by mental health researchers looking to study the hyena’s unique hormonal makeup and how these different hormone levels can effect mood and behavior, information that could be useful in studying human behavioral differences.

image courtesy of UC Berkeley
In all honesty, this is something Disney not only should do, but should also feel some serious level of obligation to do so as well.  Frankly, Disney owes it to the species to do whatever they can.  The spotted hyena is an amazing and horribly misunderstood animal, and Disney has played quite a large part in keeping those misconceptions alive and growing with children and future generations of Disney animation fans.

When Disney animators wanted to study hyenas for the purpose of creating and developing the characters in the animated film “The Lion King” they actually went to UC Berkeley to study this very same colony.  But instead of creating a realistic depiction of hyenas, Disney chose instead to hang their hats on the same old tired and ridiculous stereotypes.  Apparently the easiest way to develop a story, even at the expense of a species, is more important than doing what is right.

photo by Aruna Mohan
For many reasons, none of them good, people have an incredibly erroneous and negative view of hyenas.  We see them as scavengers, even though they scavenge less of their food then even lions do.  Much of this stereotype is based solely on timing. Hyenas kill at night, and lions come in and take over. At dawn, researchers only see lions feeding and hyenas watching from afar, misreading the actual situation.  Thus, for years, we have seen them as vicious thieves and cowards, even though they have a complex social structure and live in family groups who all work to raise pups.  Regardless of the facts, people see them negatively and Disney has only contributed to those errors.

And believe me when I tell you that Disney’s contribution to ignorance with “The Lion King” means much more than just additional uninformed people.  What it really means is that funding is harder to get for research and conservation, since those holding the cash are more reluctant to donate their money towards what they think are “evil thieving scavengers” who their children probably are afraid of.  And hyenas aren’t the only ones who suffer from such ignorance.  Hyenas are just one animal in a giant ecosystem, learning about hyenas can mean learning about other species, at the same time.  So don't think for one second that Disney’s thoughtless, erroneous and damaging depiction of hyenas hasn’t hurt other research as well.

Now with this funding gone and the folks at UC Berkeley desperate to find homes for their friends, as well as hopefully continue the research, it is time for Disney to do the right thing and make it up to the hyenas by beginning to correct a 20 year old mistake.  Hopefully bringing these animals to the park is just the start of repairing the damage done by the Mouse all those years ago.  When these hyenas make it "on stage" at the Animal Kingdom, there certainly ought to be plenty of reference and education going on about what hyenas are really like.  Even though it would be fitting, I somehow don't think the phrase "The Lion King was wrong" will make it in there.  But we will settle for "Hyena Day" at Rafiki's Planet Watch.

In their own way, this family of hyenas holds a special place in Disney history as inspirations for one of the company’s most successful and most beloved films of all time.  They probably won’t get a window on Main Street USA, though I would argue they may just deserve one.  But they can at least get a home and place where people can start to understand the truth behind these gorgeous animals.


  1. Well said! Hyenas are awesome and very unfortunately so misunderstood. I've always loved Animal Kingdom and now have three good reasons to love it even more. Great post!

  2. Too bad, I have bad feeling abou the upcoming series of the TLK spin off called The lion guard. The preview shows again the hyenas are evil and not friendly gray barking dumb sub-animals. The two hyenas are a bullying punks. If there will be no a hyena protagonist, Disney did nothing and do not cares about the hyenas bad rap. I am so dissapointed.