Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Among the Bone Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar

 (Penn State University Press, September, 2015)

I just finished reading this book and was quite favorably impressed.  I have been interested in spotted hyenas for a couple of decades now, and eagerly read anything I can get my hands on about them.  This book was a treasure. 

 If you are looking for a book that describes hyena behaviors and physiology, this is probably not your best choice.  You would probably be happier with Hugo and Jane van Lawick-Goodall’s “Innocent Killers: A Fascinating Journey through the Worlds of the Hyena, the Jackal, and the Wild Dog” or better yet, the classic “The Spotted Hyena: A Study of Predation and Social Behavior” by Hans Kruuk.

But this is a book about hyenas and people, and the ways they co-exist.  This book takes nothing for granted.  The author is willing and able to step out of the “scientific” model and form relationships with the individual hyenas that he meets.  These animals have names, and behave in ways that are quite different from their wilderness kin.  

Spotted hyenas are one of the most adaptable creatures on earth, and this is a fascinating look at how a large predator lives among humans, not as a captive, but as an additional “tribe” in a multicultural African town.

Anyway.  This is a good read.  Check it out. 

The author & Willi

By AJ Morey  (Amazon reviewer) on October 23, 2015  Format: Kindle Edition 

Like most people, I have never cultivated either an interest or fondness for hyenas. Marcus Baynes-Rock’s book, Among the Bone Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar (Penn State UP, 2015) 
persuaded me otherwise. Baynes-Rock is an anthropologist, writing an enthnography of both hyenas and their Ethiopian humans. It’s fascinating. Bayne’s-Rock is a generous narrator who offers multiple insights on what it means to be human and what it means to be animal and vice versa. At the end, he reflects upon how being with the hyenas has re-shaped his own sense of self. It’s a remarkable account by a gifted anthropologist, and sets an admirable bar for the next generation of animal studies scholars and writers.


Biologists studying large carnivores in wild places usually do so from a distance, using telemetry and noninvasive methods of data collection. So what happens when an anthropologist studies a clan of spotted hyenas, Africa’s second-largest carnivores, up close—and in a city of a hundred thousand inhabitants? In Among the Bone Eaters, Marcus Baynes-Rock takes us to the ancient city of Harar in Ethiopia, where the gey waraba (hyenas of the city) are welcome in the streets and appreciated by the locals for the protection they provide from harmful spirits and dangerous “mountain” hyenas. They’ve even become a local tourist attraction.

At the start of his research in Harar, Baynes-Rock contended with difficult conditions, stone-throwing children, intransigent bureaucracy, and wary hyena subjects intent on avoiding people. After months of frustration, three young hyenas drew him into the hidden world of the Sofi clan. He discovered the elements of a hyena’s life, from the delectability of dead livestock and the nuisance of dogs to the unbounded thrill of hyena chase-play under the light of a full moon. Baynes-Rock’s personal relations with the hyenas from the Sofi clan expand the conceptual boundaries of human-animal relations. This is multispecies ethnography that reveals its messy, intersubjective, dangerously transformative potential.

Marcus Baynes-Rock is a research associate with the University of Notre Dame. He divides his time between Indiana, Ethiopia, and northern New South Wales, where he lives with his wife and baby daughter.

Among the Bone Eaters  By Chelsea Leu  Oct 9 2015

Hyenas are unpopular animals, reviled for their eerie calls and predilection for carrion. But when anthropologist Marcus Baynes-Rock traveled to the small Ethiopian town of Harar in 2009 to study the hyenas there, he found ones tame enough to be fed by hand.

What follows in Among the Bone Eaters is a probing look at the complex relationship between humans and wild animals. Baynes-Rock introduces us to the hyenas he meets (Tukwondilli, Baby, and Willi, to name a few) just as carefully and with as much attention to personality as he does his human acquaintances. By day, he interviews the residents of the town about local hyena legend. By night, he follows the hyenas, hanging out with them in their favored garbage patch or traversing the ancient city’s drainage lanes. Eventually, a few of the animals become so accustomed to his presence that he wrestles with them and endures their playful nips. 

Baynes-Rock’s immersive account is told with sharp-eyed, self-effacing prose, and he leaves nothing out—Ethiopia’s sluggish bureaucracy, the town’s maze-like geography, and even the Oromo woman he meets and eventually marries. It’s as much a travelogue as it is a research study. 

Baynes-Rock is an academic—he tends to slip into jargon and constantly references the philosopher Martin Buber. However, his final musings are fascinating. The hyenas he meets, coexisting with humans, may represent a rapidly approaching future where an animal’s “natural” environment no longer really exists. It’s “hyenas like those in Harar,” he writes, “who [stand] a chance of persisting beyond the boundaries of protected areas and zoos.”

Hyenas at the garbage dump outside Harar

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