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Hyenas aren’t really like the scoundrels from ‘The Lion King’

A new book shows them as fierce hunters and social animals, not just giggling scavengers.

Hyenas, seen in the book “The Hyena Scientist,” are exceptional hunters. Author Sy Montgomery went to Kenya to observe the work of Kay Holekamp, who has been studying the animals for several decades. (Photo by Nic Bishop/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Sy Montgomery thinks hyenas have gotten a bad reputation. They are, it turns out, great hunters, not the skulking scavengers of “The Lion King.” They are also very social creatures and express themselves through a variety of sounds, not just what seem like hysterical giggles.

Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop spent 10 days in Kenya watching these misunderstood animals while researching their latest book, “The Hyena Scientist.”

They stayed in a research encampment in the Masai Mara wildlife reserve that is run by Kay Holekamp, an American zoologist who has studied the spotted hyena for 30 years. Holekamp has discovered, among other things, that spotted hyenas are more effective hunters than lions.

“That’s the great thing about science,” Montgomery says. “You look at the most fundamental assumptions about an animal to see if they’re true, and sometimes you’re going to be surprised.”

Hyenas’ teeth may be the strongest in the world.

“The power of their jaws is strong enough to break the bones of giraffes,” Montgomery notes. “And they eat the bone. Not like a dog chews on a bone. They digest the bone.”

Because hyenas can be so fierce, Holekamp and her team of research assistants mostly study the hyenas from the safety of a jeep. They use a quiet dart gun to put an individual hyena to sleep so that they can examine it or fit it with a tracking device.

Holekamp’s goal is to never hurt or frighten the hyenas. “The old dart guns used to make this really loud, awful noise,” Montgomery says, “and the hyenas would be terrified when they saw you because this bad noise was coming.”

And instead of cutting pieces out of their ears, as the previous researcher did to identify them, Holekamp focused on learning what natural markings set them apart from other members of their clan.

“She’s got this down so that these hyenas are not harmed by her studying them,” Montgomery says. Furthermore, “the data she has collected shows them in a much better light,” Montgomery says. “And when people appreciate animals, they’re more likely to treat them well.”

Holekamp has followed several hyena clans for many generations, naming and keeping track of each hyena. She has given her research assistants the opportunity to name the cubs as each new litter is born. So that’s why the young male who gets measured in Chapter 7 is called McDonald’s; the graduate students picked a fast-food-restaurant theme for that litter.

Along with describing the clan war and other exciting events she and Bishop witnessed, Montgomery writes about the diverse members of Holekamp’s research group. It includes 69-year-old Dee, who hired Holekamp as a young intern and had always wanted to work in Africa, and 25-year-old Benson, who was a Masai herder who began working in the camp as a dishwasher.

“He was an orphan who hadn’t completed school,” Montgomery says. Most local herders don’t like hyenas because they eat Masai livestock, but “Benson could see them as the exciting individuals they are and now will be going to college in the United States. Great blessings are in store if you learn to love hyenas!”

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