Friday, September 16, 2016

The Trouble with The Lion King

I recently watched Walt Disney's animated movie, The Lion King, here in camp with my Kenyan family.  The last time I had seen The Lion King was many years ago, and it was a surreal and strange experience to see it again after meeting the real-life counterparts of many of the African animals it portrays.
Mufasa from The Lion King.  (c) Disney
An actual lion I saw in the Maasai Mara.
When I was a kid, The Lion King was one of my favorite movies.  And I was not alone.  For the year it came out in theaters, 1994, The Lion King was the highest-grossing film at the box office.  WORLDWIDE!  It enchanted audiences of all ages around the globe with a beautifully-illustrated tale about talking animals on the savannah, in which some noble lions and their friends fight the forces of evil.  Unfortunately, one of the forces of evil the heroes fight is a group of wicked hyenas.

Banzai, Shenzi, and Ed from The Lion King.  (c) Disney
Like many people, I was first introduced to hyenas through The Lion King... which is too bad, because it got pretty much everything wrong.  Below, I list some myths The Lion King spread about hyenas and explain why they are incorrect.

1. Hyenas are stupid.

(c) Disney
The lion villain of The Lion King, Scar, calls his hyena cronies things like "idiots", "thick", "fool"[ish], and "vacant", describing their "powers of retention" as "wet as a warthog's backside".

In reality, spotted hyenas are very intelligent!

They can solve complex cognitive puzzles.  As Lily Johnson-Ulrich described in previous blog posts (here and here), spotted hyenas exhibit "inhibitory control" (self-restraint), behavioral flexibility, and, as we've seen from their successes with Lily's multi-access box, an ability to solve novel foraging problems.  All of these traits are signs of general intelligence.

A spotted hyena investigating Lily's multi-access box.  This box is a complicated tool for assessing hyena cognition, designed to test whether a hyena can figure out novel solutions to a problem in order to acquire food.  Several of our hyenas in the Mara have passed the test!

Spotted hyenas also have remarkable social intelligence, similar to that of baboons.  A spotted hyena can keep track of the (typically within the range of 6 to 90!) other hyenas in her clan: who they are, their relationships with each other, and her own place in the dominance hierarchy of the clan in relation to everyone else.  How spotted hyenas navigate all these different relationships is astounding, especially to an introvert like me who sometimes has trouble keeping track of even a handful of new faces and names.

Spotted hyenas live in large social groups called clans.  Each hyena has to learn its place in the structure of the group, and how it should behave around each of the other members of its clan.  Here, the two hyenas without collars are behaving submissively toward the collared hyena, who is higher ranking in the clan than they are (and they know it!).

Clearly, despite what Scar may have told you, it is not the case that "the lights are not all on upstairs" in the brains of hyenas.

2. Hyenas are nothing but lowly scavengers.

(c) Disney
In The Lion King, Scar feeds his hyena minions a zebra haunch, which they eagerly consume.  It is implied that the hyenas are incapable of hunting for themselves.  Scar says to them, "You won't get a sniff without me!", insinuating that without the help of lions, the real hunters, hyenas would not be able to eat.

Spotted hyenas, though, are excellent hunters.  In fact, they kill 60 to 95 percent of the food they eat themselves.  They are very flexible hunters, too, able to catch and consume everything from termites to elephants.


Above video (sorry if it's hard to see; you might have to zoom in on your browser to spot the hyenas!): some of our spotted hyenas test chasing wildebeests, trying to figure out who might be their next meal.  They obviously work for a living!

Furthermore, lions steal from hyena kills MORE OFTEN than hyenas steal from lions!  So really, Scar's "minions" would more likely have been the ones catching food for him!

3. Hyenas are ugly.

(c) Disney

This one may be more of a subjective, rather than a factual, point, but...

I want you to look into Kerri Strug's eyes and tell her that she's ugly.

Or this cub's eyes.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so your opinion may differ from mine, but I personally do not think hyenas are ugly.  Also, lions have their bad hair days, too.

4. Hyenas are ecologically damaging.

After hyenas move into the homeland of the lions of The Lion King, the landscape is reduced to a barren wasteland.

(c) Disney
But in the real world, the presence of spotted hyenas in an ecosystem is a positive thing.

Spotted hyenas consume carcasses and even bones, removing detritus from a landscape and thereby helping to keep it clean and healthy.  When they do this, they may also help reduce the spread of diseases in their prey populations.  As a top predator, it is likely that spotted hyenas also help to maintain the genetic health of their prey populations, by eliminating weaker, or otherwise unhealthy, animals.

The Mara ecosystem would be incomplete without hyenas roaming through it.
In addition, spotted hyenas may be a great indicator species for monitoring ecosystem health.  Since spotted hyenas are highly adaptable generalists who can adjust to human disturbance and a range of other variable environmental conditions, significant changes in spotted hyena populations in an area could reflect significant changes in the ecosystem itself, which might indicate environmental problems that will affect other species of animals.

In short, spotted hyenas do not create wastelands.  Instead, they help to maintain ecosystem health, and could also help us to monitor it.

5. Hyenas are all alike.

In the most famous scene featuring hyenas in The Lion King, a song called "Be Prepared", huge ranks of hyenas march together as a massive army, and they all look and act identically, like toy soldiers made in the same mold on an assembly line.

(c) Disney
However, after observing spotted hyenas for myself, I can safely say that each hyena I've met is a distinct individual.  Some are bold and curious.  Some are shy and spooky.  Some are great mothers, and some are terrible mothers.  Some are playful, and some snap at others who try to play with them.

Some have reddish-orange fur.  Some have silvery fur.  Some have tan fur.  Some have blond fur.  Some have blackish brown fur.  Some have dark spots and some have faint spots, and no two hyenas have the same spot pattern.

TAMI, a pale blond subadult spotted hyena.
MUKI, a darker-furred subadult spotted hyena.
Every hyena is unique, just like every person is unique.  And that's intraspecies variation alone - variation within the spotted hyena, the species we study and the species I describe in the other parts of this post.  There are three other living species of hyenas in addition to the spotted hyena: the aardwolf, the brown hyena, and the striped hyena, and they all look and behave differently and have very different strategies for survival.  As you can see, there's a whole WORLD of hyenas out there, far beyond the shallow and inaccurate caricature in The Lion King!
After reading this post, you may say, "Okay, Amy, I get it, but it's just a MOVIE.  A CARTOON, no less.  Relax!"

But whether we acknowledge it or not, the media has a powerful influence on our lives, affecting everything from what we wear and what we eat to the products we buy and even how we vote.  And, as I've discussed, it has an effect on which animals we revere and which we despise.  The Lion King was, and still is, an incredibly popular film, so it has had a profound impact on our culture for decades.  It did a great disservice to hyenas by encouraging people to perceive them in such a negative, and flagrantly untrue, light.  It's time we start to turn those perceptions around.

Please share this with everyone you know who has ever watched The Lion King, and help change people's minds about hyenas.  Thank you!


The Lion King by Walt Disney Co.


Anonymous said...

Hyenas are beautiful - thanks for reminding us that not everything is true because we saw it on a screen! Your insight into this is so helpful!Keep up the great blogs!

dee said...

In addition to being informative, your posts are fun!. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

The Lion King a lot of lies. It is believed that only hyenas harm to lions, but in reality everything is different. Lions often kill hyenas, hyena than lion kill. Hyenas are more benefits to African expanses, than the lions. By the way. Because lions there is a risk that the view of Spotted Hyena can disappear.

----------The source below----------

В король лев много неправды. Считается, что только гиены вредят львам, но на деле всё иначе. Львы часто убивают гиен, нежели гиены убивают львов. Гиены несут больше пользы африканским просторам, нежели львы. Кстати. Из-за львов есть риск, что вид Spotted Hyena может исчезнуть.

Michigan State University | College of Natural Science