Creature Feature: Spotted Hyenas


I know what the common perception of hyenas is: cruel, cowardly scavengers who leech off of other predators’ hunts. When we think of these animals, we most often think of the trio from The Lion King

Disney actually got in a bit of trouble over its depiction of spotted hyenas. The animators went to the University of California to sketch captive subjects and promised the researchers that they would portray the animals in a positive light. One of the researchers, jokingly, called on people to “boycott The Lion King” to help preserve wild hyenas and that the film “set back hyena conservation efforts” with its depiction of them as craven, simple-minded comic relief. However, the researchers did admit that the film drew more attention to hyenas. 

Hyenas vs. Lions

But if people hate hyenas for stealing from other animals or killing young and weak prey, then they should also hate lions for the same reasons. I love lions, but they certainly do not have the moral high ground over hyenas. 

Spotted hyenas, which live in Africa, are pack hunters. They operate in a very strict hierarchy, with a matriarch at the top. While their close relatives, the striped hyena, are primarily scavengers, these hyenas kill up to 95% of their own prey (meanwhile a large part of a lion’s diet is made of carrion stolen from a hyena). It’s not the case of lions being at the top of the food chain while the hyena struggles to best them; both animals are essentially on equal footing with how much they hunt, and how often they fight each other. 

Hyena Hierarchy

Hyena “clans” can number in the eighties, and their clan structure and social dynamics are much more complicated than most carnivores. Every hyena has a rank, starting with the matriarch. Typically adult males are at the bottom, unless he’s the son of the matriarch (yes – hyenas have nepotism). While the males don’t have much to do with raising cubs, they recognise and play with their daughters, who show less aggression to their fathers than other males. A hyena hierarchy is determined not by strength, but by social networks. Their ranks often depend on their relationship to the matriarch, and hyenas will fall into groups that work cooperatively in the clan. 

Hyena Biology

Hyenas might seem like a type of wild dog, but they’re actually more closely related to cats. They belong to a suborder of mammals called feliform, which include mongooses, meerkats and other cat-like carnivores. They do have similarities to canines, and that’s to do with something called convergent evolution. Convergent evolution is when very different species develop similar traits to fill an ecological niche. Hyenas, despite not being canids at all, developed similar bone-crushing jaws as dogs. And just like dogs, they catch prey with their teeth instead of their claws. 

Hyenas have a bite force nearly twice the strength of a lion’s. This allows them to easily break through the thickest bones of their prey, granting them access to the delicious bone marrow. 

Hyenas in Mythology

In West Africa and Tanzania, hyenas often have negative associations as omens of immorality and treachery. They have more supernatural connotations in the Middle East, appearing as cannibalistic lycanthropes. The Greeks believed that the bodies of werewolves who died on the battlefield would rise as vampiric hyenas that feast on dying soldiers.

Unlike my post on bearded vultures, I’m not trying to convince you that hyenas are actually nice and friendly animals. They’re still quite vicious and cruel, and their sadistic laughter is certainly creepy. But hopefully, I’ve dispelled some of the misconceptions around them. These animals are intelligent, with complex social structures. They aren’t cowards; they’ll go up against a lion with no qualms. They’re also closer to cats than dogs, and have jaws strong enough to shatter bones.

What Was the Beast of Gevaudan?

The Beast attacks a young French woman

The Beast of Gevaudan is a fascinating cryptid because unlike its modern counterparts – like Bigfoot and the Mothman – we don’t have any photographic evidence or living witnesses. The Beast terrorised the province of Gevaudan in the 18th century, but it’s likely we’ll never know exactly what it was. It was most commonly described as a wolf or ‘wolf-like creature’, which at first was not as alarming as it might be now. 

Wolf attacks were common in that era. They mostly affected young girls who were left alone to tend to sheep, making themselves easy targets for carnivores. So when a few girls turned up dead, no one really batted an eye. It wasn’t until the attacks continued with alarming frequency that the population began looking deeper into these killings. 

Description of the Beast

The Beast of Gevaudan, “Picture of the Monster that is desolating Gévaudan.”

Several victims had been decapitated, a technique which seemed out of the ordinary for wolves. There were several survivors of these attacks that claimed the beast to be “like a wolf, but not a wolf”. Just like a monster in a horror novel, this vague description of what it was not led to some very creative and interesting interpretations of The Beast. It was described as having a black stripe down its back; red fur; glowing red eyes; a broad chest and small ears. Some odder details included a glare that could paralyse a man, hooves, and armour made of boar skin leather. According to those who attacked the beast, weapons bounced harmlessly off of its hide. Hunters sent by the King to slay it claimed their bullets did the same, but that was likely an excuse. 

Mystery Solved?

Eventually it was announced that the beast had been killed, and its taxidermied body was brought before the king. All of France was disappointed, as the creature presented to them was no more than a large wolf, a major let-down to the hype that had built up over the past few years. 

With all of the strange reported details that mostly added up to a consistent picture, the dreaded beast couldn’t just be a regular wolf, could it? This one had been found with human remains in its stomach, but that didn’t account for the odd colouration, resistance to bullets, and unusual method of killing. The people of France knew what a wolf looked like; if that were all, why were all the eyewitness reports so adamant that there was something more? 


The “Beast of Gevaudan” on display
A Striped Hyena

Though it’s likely we’ll never learn the truth, there’s no end to the theories of what the Beast of Gevaudan might have been. The most popular belief was that it was the result of a wolf and another animal; likely a large dog such as a mastiff. On the superstitious side, a popular theory was that a werewolf was running loose. The intrigue of werewolves was neither new nor uncommon at that time, and the theory certainly helped to drive sensationalist newspapers. 

Examining the descriptions of the beast has led some to believe that it was not one wolf, but a pair of juvenile male lions. During 18th Century France, the aristocracy had menageries of exotic animals shipped in from other countries. The French peasantry would not be familiar with what a young lion looked like, so if someone’s ‘pet’ lion was on a rampage, they wouldn’t know better. 

Menageries also account for my personal favourite theory; hyenas. Hyenas certainly have a wolf-like appearance, but are different enough that you couldn’t possibly mistake them for one. They are broader in the chest than wolves, and striped hyenas have the darker stretch of fur along the spine that was described by many witnesses. Hyenas have also been known to tear the heads off of their prey, though it’s impossible to know if the Beast’s victims were decapitated as the method of death or after the fact. 

One of the more outlandish theories was that the beast was a trained animal (either a wolf-dog hybrid or a hyena, which are surprisingly easy to train) that was conditioned to kill humans on sight and dressed in leather armour to protect itself from attacks. Even wilder speculations theorise that the beast was actually not a beast at all, but a serial killer wearing animal skins. While this somewhat accounts for the beast’s intelligence, it seems unlikely that not one witness would have recognised the attacker as a human. 

The Beast’s Legacy

So many possibilities, but it’s likely we’ll never really know what the Beast of Gevaudan was. The press at the time was itching for something to distract from politics, so it’s not out of the question that many of the descriptions of the beast were exaggerated for effect. There were obviously no cameras back then, so we’re reliant on illustrations to guess what it looked like. While I find the illustrations absolutely charming in an unsettling, macabre kind of way, the anatomical accuracy of 18th Century French artists leaves something to be desired. 

The Beast of Gevaudan is a mystery that will likely never be solved. All we know for certain is that over 100 people were brutally killed in the French countryside over the span of a few short years, and that whatever did it was vaguely wolf-like and extremely difficult to kill. While I would love to know what the Beast actually was, I’m more fascinated by how its existence is an example of real-life horror and the fear of the unknown.

To a modern audience, horror monsters might be scary but not necessarily terrifying, as most of us aren’t likely to be hunted by something higher than us on the food chain. But for the people of 18th Century Gevaudan, wolf attacks were a real threat. They couldn’t fathom something stronger and more aggressive than a wolf, so it’s no wonder that the Beast stayed in their minds for so long. 

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