Their large jaw muscles and bone-crushing premolars give them
chewing ability stronger than a brown bear’s. They eat and digest
parts of dead animals other predators leave for waste, including
bones. Their gut is so e;cient that their feces are white and powdery. Hyenas rival primates in intelligence and skill at cooperative
hunting. In captivity, pairs of hyenas, given the challenge to pull
two ropes in unison to get a food reward, learned the skill more
quickly than chimps given the same task. They rivaled the chimps
too in passing on the skill to inexperienced clan mates.
Spotted hyenas are weird looking. Cute teddy-bear ears.
Flu=y, mottled coat. The cantilevered stance, hind legs much
shorter than forelegs, makes the animal look somehow taller
than itself and always ready to lunge. There is menace in the
darting eyes. Their whooping cry has earned them the nickname “laughing hyena,” though it sounds nothing like laughter
except in bedlam. They live in clans of five to ninety members,
led by an alpha female whose o=spring will inherit her role.
Aristotle thought hyenas resembled hermaphrodites. There is
little sexual dimorphism in their genitalia. The female has a six-inch clitoris that can become erect. The labia are fused in a sac
resembling a scrotum. This confusing equipment entered oral
tradition as protoscience: in medieval bestiaries, the hyena was
said to change its gender at will or with the season. For the female hyena, this gear means di;cult childbirth, as the young
emerge through the clitoris.
Kruuk observed that during a violent storm in Tanzania’s
Ngorongoro Crater, a herd of Thompson gazelles became frenzied and disoriented. The hyenas became excited and gave
chase, pursuing the gazelles with a zeal matching the storm’s
intensity. They slaughtered eighty in a night—far more than
the pack could possibly eat. He named the behavior “surplus
killing,” and it is now known that many carnivores do this. It
may be more likely to occur when predators are overstimulated
and prey weakened by ill health or weather. Kruuk later reported
that three crows went on a binge, caching seventy-nine mice in
slightly over two hours. Other reports of surplus killing tally red
foxes in north Scotland killing two hundred black-headed gulls
in a night, and similar binges by minks feeding on terns, killer
whales on seal pups, and even among spiders hunting flies. Surplus killing is not the norm, but it is common enough in the
carnivorous world to say that the capacity for this behavior is a
component of the animal spirit.
Surplus killing looks brutal and gratuitously violent to the
human eye, though our species too is quite accomplished in
acts that have earned those descriptors. But for an animal that
must kill to live, it makes sense for the hunt and the kill to be
pleasurable. If you don’t kill, you don’t eat, and if you don’t eat,
you die. Nature’s clever trick is to make behaviors that enhance
survival among a creature’s keenest pleasures: eating, having
sex, maternal bonding, social cohesion. Animals engaged in
surplus killing may simply be thrilling in their physical being—
their skill and strength and muscular joy. Human beings add a
new element to the repertoire of the animal spirit. In finding
the behavior excessive, vicious, causing unnecessary su=ering
and death, humanity identifies itself as a creature holding
values and making ethical judgments. Just because it feels good
doesn’t mean you should do it.
I visited the Ngorongoro Crater in the company of two Peace
Corps volunteers, a traveling companion, and a Chaga guide.
My safari o=ered no opportunity for the sustained observation
I so admire in a researcher of Kruuk’s dedication. What con-
clusions could I draw from a week of casual observation made
through the roof of a Land Rover?
Surely not science. A casual observer can testify only to the
moment. And what one sees will always be colored by what one
longs to see. The unsettling truth is that most visitors to the last
great animal spectacles on Earth long to see the kill. It thrills and
arouses the imagination. It stimulates an atavistic hunger to live
in a body so perfectly suited to meeting its needs. I saw no kill
and counseled myself that I should not be disappointed.
Yes, I saw the dried pelt of a gazelle hanging from a baobab
tree where a leopard had left it after supper. Yes, I saw the dis-
membered head of a zebra lying in scrub, the red gash where
it had been severed as loud in mind today as when I saw it
through the window of our racing microbus. But what struck
me most keenly was the peace of the animals. Cloudlike herds
of zebra, impala, and wildebeest drifted across Ngorongoro’s
great grassy mind, shape-shifting throughout the afternoon.
Two cheetahs trotted in purposeful single file toward the open-
ing in the crater that leads to the Serengeti. The pride of lion-
esses lay on their backs in the high heat of the day, forelegs
dawdling in the air. The black rhino slept, imitating a boulder
in tall grass. The Egyptian goose and crown-crested cranes,
Fischer’s lovebirds and superb starlings, hammerkops and
saddle-billed storks dabbled in the shallows of wetlands or
clawed up playful clouds of dust. The troupe of baboons sat qui-
etly under a sprawling tree, waiting out a rain squall. The peace
of the land, the last islands of this peace, made me feel small. I
welcomed the feeling. It was a pleasure to feel insignificant, to
let my desires quiet, to feel, in the moment, the human body as
an instrument attuned to peace. A
Read more about animals in Orion’s new anthology, Animals &
People. Go to www.orionmagazine.org/books.