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|
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|
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.