They have been maligned for millennia – from the days of antiquity when they were despised as grave robbers to Disney's portrayal of vicious, laughing henchmen in The Lion King.
But the Born Free Foundation hopes to persuade us that hyenas are "utterly adorable" and worth saving. In the run-up to Christmas, the charity has launched an "adopt a hyena" scheme to help to fund conservation work in Africa. For £2.50 a month, "parents" will get a cuddly toy hyena, a photo and a family history.
The conservation charity admits it may be a tough sell. Mark Jones, a vet and the foundation's wildlife policy programmes manager, said: "Most people would be used to Born Free promoting adoptions for lions and elephants. This is something a little bit different … perhaps not something most people would think of right at the top of the list of animals to adopt. They do get a bit of a bad rap, which is a great shame because they are fascinating and really important animals.
"The more we learn, the more we realise scavengers, which you could regard as being at the top of the food chain, are incredibly important. If they disappear, the trickle-down effects can be massive."
The money raised from adoptions will fund conservation work, such as a rescue centre near Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. The "spacious enclosure" is used to raise orphans and rehabilitate others – such as animals that have been kept in poor conditions in zoos – so they can be released back into the wild.
There are more than 10,000 adult spotted hyenas in their native Africa, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It warns that the population is in "continuing decline … due to persecution and habitat loss" and that it may have become extinct in Algeria, Eritrea and Togo. But the overall situation is not yet serious enough to warrant formal classification of the species as being "threatened" with annihilation.
Hyenas were a "very misunderstood" animal, said Mr Jones. "The reputation they have as being cowardly animals that steal children or rob graves isn't deserved. They certainly deserve our respect," he said. "They are very social and they look after each other in family groups. As young they are very vulnerable. I think they are very attractive."
Humans persistently demonise hyenas. In Disney's The Lion King (1994) Zazu, a hornbill, tells Simba the lion that hyenas are "slobbering, mangy, stupid poachers". But lions are more likely to steal prey from spotted hyenas than vice versa.
In the 13th century, Bartholomew Anglicus said the hyena was "a cruel beast like to the wolf in devouring and gluttony, and reseth on dead men, and taketh their carcase out of the earth, and devoureth them", citing the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder.
But hyenas have some fans. Among them is the poet and professor John Burnside. He said: "It's important to remember all animals are important in terms of the ecosystem. We tend to relate to animals that have got features we can make into human-like features. Hyenas defy that. It's a very distinct, 'other' kind of animal. By respecting the hyena we are respecting the otherness of nature."
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