Here at Hyena Central I get a lot of visitors looking for information on how to keep a hyena as a pet. And for good reason! Reports of hyenas being domesticated have been circulated by the African Wildlife Foundation, Animal Planet, and the BBC— among other sources blatantly plagiarizing one source or the other. Speciously included in its “Big Cats” series, BBC reports, “In ancient Egypt hyenas were domesticated and even eaten.”
But that’s not entirely true. And they aren’t cats, though they are closely related.
What is believed to be true is some attempt at domestication, or at least a degree of animal husbandry regarding hyenas during the Old Kingdom of Egypt. As Salima Ikram wryly points out in her book Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt, these attempts “must have proved unsatisfactory, as domestic scenes featuring hyenas die out by the Middle Kingdom of Egypt.”
Another bound hyena scene is found in the tomb of Ty, also at Saqqara. In this rendering of the mural, the hyena is in the lower right of the frame, with the accompanying text “fattening a hyena,” also highlighted pink.
This image, taken from A J Legge’s really excellent article “The hyaena in dynastic Egypt: Fancy food or fantasy food?” illustrates the fattening process, with a very interesting and unlikely inclusion:
In this scene the hyenas are depicted with lop ears, a decision Legge believes may have been made in order to show the “supplication” of the animals, who in their desire to be fed more resemble domesticated animals than wild beasts.
And the Egyptians would have been on to something. “Lop ears,” or droopy, floppy ears, are typical of domesticated animals, which for physiological reasons, display neoteny— the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood. In chapter 1 of The Origin of Species, Darwin notes, “Not a single domestic animal can be named which has not in some country drooping ears…”, so it’s a small leap to include this trait on animals that have become dependent upon their handlers in the same way as domesticated animals.
Here is a detail of the feeding, from the middle of the frame:
And then the hyena at the right is depicted with pricked ears and a larger stomach, having been force fed poultry, either to fatten them for slaughter, for sacrifice, or to satiate their appetite enough for use in hunting other quarry.
Again, Ikram wryly observes the unlikelihood of their being used in hunting, due to their primary dependence on scavenging. As well as the eventual domestication of sheep, goats, pigs and cattle, providing a more stable source of animal protein in the form of livestock.
Domestication has occured in one way or another since Neolithic Times. It is not out of the question that human activities may have altered the course of hyena evolution. Hyenas have been eating people for at least as long as there have been people, so the two species have been in contact since then. Perhaps there has been some degree of self-domestication, as was probably the case with dogs, but this has not been evidenced.
It is also possible that through early handling, these animals were tamer than their entirely wild counterparts, as a zoo worker informed Legge during his research. In response to this:
“However, domestication should not be conflated with taming. Taming is conditioned behavioral modification of an individual; domestication is permanent genetic modification of a bred lineage that leads to, among other things, a heritable predisposition toward human association. And domestic animals need not be “tame” in the behavioral sense (consider a Spanish fighting bull) and, conversely, wild animals can be quite tame (consider a hand-raised cheetah or tiger).”
On an unapologetically included tangent, I give you the Spanish Fighting Bull:
In closing, it is highly unlikely that the Egyptians domesticated the hyena Those guys with the hyenas on chains do not have domesticated hyenas. This African shepherd has not domesticated his animals. And no, you can’t domesticate one. Not unless you have several thousand years to spare selectively breeding the things.