On the unlikelihood of hyena domestication. Or: No, you can’t have one.

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.”

These “domestic scenes” include this one in the Mastaba of Kagemni at Saqqara. The hyena, bound and on its back, is being fed by hand.

accessed 1/23/13

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.

accessed 1/23/13

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.

lop eared hyena

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.

upright eared hyena

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).” 

accessed 1/23/13, original link is dead.

On an unapologetically included tangent, I give you the Spanish Fighting Bull:

Look at it! Put that thing in the cattle Olympics! For good reason, they were included in a mostly-unsuccessful back breeding of the Auroch, which I write about here.

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.

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14 Responses to On the unlikelihood of hyena domestication. Or: No, you can’t have one.

  1. Not even if I really want one?

  2. I’ve never wanted a hyena for a pet. It’s something about being mauled in my sleep I think.

    • You’d think you’d be in the majority, but a good portion of the views I got on this site come from people trying to keep a hyena a a pet. Further evidence that some people just can’t recognize danger when they see it.

      • Techne says:

        Or maybe, like me, they were just curious. xD I mean, it’s not like I’m about to go buy a hyena. My apartment complex doesn’t even allow certain terriers. But I saw a picture of a striped hyena as a national animal, then a picture of someone holding one, and thought. Huh. Can they be tamed?
        Apparently not, as they’re ferocious monsters. But still damn cute, you have to admit.

  3. matt says:

    foxes were domesticated in 40 yrs. if we knew how to readily breed hyena’s (i think it may be difficult) it would take us no more than 80 years to domesticate them, not thousands of years

    • An excellent point! Foxes were (to some degree) domesticated during an ongoing experiment in Russia. I think I posted that line in response to the sheer number of posts I get on this blog that are devoted to “how to domesticate a hyena” or “hyena as a pet”. Like– no, guys. Please do not buy wild animals off the internet. A follow up post I’ve considered writing would be on the possibility of domesticating hyenas. They’d be more difficult than foxes, for a few reasons, but pending further investigation I wouldn’t think it’s impossible.

      So cheers! Thanks for the close reading and pointing that out!

      • Rez says:

        I’m a pro dog trainer with over 40 years experience. In my own kennel I breed primarily for intelligence and desire to work for man. Hyenas are interesting animals and I’ve actually given some thought to the notion of domestication.

        From what I see in watching numerous videos, hyenas are a lot smarter than wolves (and have better memories), but have a lot of the same basic characteristics. Dogs probably came from “lone wolf” ancestors who were both smarter than average and looking for a pack leader (this is evident from behavior of loner and “problem” wolves written about in the past century)… but breed for that desire to be with and work with man and pretty soon you’ve got dogs, not wolves.

        Given that hyenas have the social structure they do — as with the silver fox project, breeding primarily for tameness and lack of aggression should accomplish that fairly quickly. Probably rather more easily than with foxes, which don’t have that inherently social nature. I’d guess you’d have a good start in 3 or 4 generations, functional domestication by 10 generations, and a reliably-domestic animal at about 20 generations.

        A bigger problem, I expect, is the exaggerated hormone balance in female hyenas and subsequent aggression. I’d bet after a couple dozen generations bred for tameness, the females would become less dimorphic, but this would have to be a consideration in your choice of breeding stock.

        It would be a worthwhile project, as I think hyenas would domesticate well and could be very useful animals (albeit probably not widely suitable as pets, much as flock guardian dogs are not really suitable as pets for average people). But it’s not a project for an amateur and it’s certainly not a short-term project — you’d have to be willing to commit to many generations, with enough breeding stock to establish a solid gene pool since you *cannot* reintroduce wild blood or you’d be right back where you started, once again trying to breed out the wild animal traits.

        The probable reason why the ancient Egyptians stopped keeping hyenas, and why Africans have had only limited success, is that they don’t use selective breeding; they use captured cubs. Which of course is still a wild animal, no matter how well-tamed. Tame and domesticated are not the same thing… you don’t have to “tame” a domesticated animal.

  4. diertjie says:

    The Russian fox study offered incredible insight into the domestication suite of traits. Why do animals selected for tame behavior usually come with white markings, floppy ears, and curly tails? This study points to mutations in neural crest development. Phenotypically, one is selecting for tameness, though genetically, you are actually selecting for the neural crest mutation, which causes the tameness (through neural-crest dependent deficiencies in the “fight-or-flight” stress response), as well as white spots (pigmentation cells derived from neural crest cells), floppy ears (deficiency in neural crest derived cartilage), and curly tail (deficiencies in neural crest cell derived cartilage, reduction in vertebrate). Do note that, although they witnessed incredible changes in behavior in just 40 years, they did not start with truly wild foxes … they started with fur foxes that had been bred in human captivity for an even longer period of time. Although these fur foxes weren’t being specifically bred for domestication, I can’t imagine that there wasn’t at least some selection for those better adjusted to a life caged by humans–i.e., the ones that were more likely to eat your face off were probably less likely than the ever-so-slightly nicer ones to be kept around for breeding.

    That being said, I would really, really like a hyena, though presently, would not follow through on this mostly unrealistic desire for the sake of both me, my neighbors, my dog, and, most importantly, the hyena itself. However, I certainly would be interested to see a thoughtfully put together domestication experiment in the hyenas similar to the foxes!

  5. Edge says:

    Wouldn’t the matter of breed make a noteworthy difference in terms of domestication? I can admit I wouldn’t trust a spotted hyena not to do something regrettable either to me or to another animal but a brown or striped hyena seems less potentially dangerous or naturally aggressive to humans and have been raised alongside dogs and acclimatised well. Of course its far from an urban acceptable species and I’d never recommend someone to keep these animals with cats or any animal it might consider food but I would consider them a species worth trying to domesticate especially with their numbers on the decline,

  6. Pingback: Don’t keep a hyena as a pet. Seriously. | Thrill Seeking Behavior

  7. Bolko says:

    You don’t need thousands of years today. Thousands of years were bneeded when humans did not exactly know the purpose of domestication. Animals were in a looser association with humans back then. But from the time the process of domestication became scientifically understood, domestication can be done in even a few generations, eg the russian fox experiment.

    • Don’t go encouraging them! I am sure you are right, nonetheless. I will say that hyenas in particular have a few things working against them in terms of domestication; they are expensive and dangerous livestock, and breed less copiously than other animals. Further, people might not want them as pets once they are domesticated, because what would be the fun in that?

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