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Belfast Zoo says ‘HI’ to a hyaena

Date: 22 May 2015

Female striped hyaena

Belfast Zoo’s latest arrival is earning its stripes as the Cave Hill site is now home to a female striped hyaena, named Lea! Lea arrived on Wednesday 1 April from Africa Alive, in Suffolk.

Although hyaenas may look dog-like, they are not members of the dog or cat families. Instead they are so unique that they have a family all of their own called Hyaenidae. There are four members of the hyaenidae family including the striped hyaena, the spotted hyaena, the brown hyaena and the aardwolf. The striped hyaena has a yellow-brown coat with black stripes on the body and legs. A mane of long dark hair grows along the back and the most striking feature is the legs, as the front legs are much longer than the back, giving the hyaena its distinctive walk.

Zoo curator, Julie Mansell said, “Hyaenas have quite a bad reputation in popular culture and they are regularly labelled as ‘the bad guys’. They are also sometimes nicknamed the ‘scourge of the Serengeti’. Hyaena eat carrion and their jaws enable them to crush bones, teeth, horns and other body parts that other predators have left uneaten. The hyaena’s role as ‘cleanup crew’ is vital but what most people don’t realise is that the hyaena is also omnivorous and feeds opportunistically on a diet of fruit, seeds, leaves and insects. While spotted hyaenas are renowned for their ‘laugh’, striped hyaenas are usually silent and use body language to communicate, for example, they raise the hair along their backs to make themselves appear larger in front of other predators. From the short time that we have worked and cared for Lea we can say that many of the myths are far from the truth. Lea is extremely intelligent and is also quite shy and has been a pleasure to work with.”

Zoo manager, Mark Challis, said, “We are always excited to welcome a new arrival to the zoo but we are particularly excited as we are now one of only two zoos in the UK and Ireland to be home to this stunning species. From our records of the old zoo, we have discovered that the site was once home to this species a very long time ago. The old zoo was also home, at one time, to striped, spotted and brown hyenas so we have good history with the hyaenidae family! When the new zoo site was first developed, the enclosure was originally designed for hyaena but instead became home to African wild dog. It is wonderful that it is now going to be used for the species which it was once intended for, especially as striped hyaena are facing increasing threat from habitat destruction, hunting and poisoning. While these animals were once numerous, the striped hyaena population is dwindling and has disappeared from some areas altogether. Our role as a modern zoo and conservation facility is therefore becoming ever more important and as part of a collaborative breeding programme, Lea will soon be joined by a male hyaena.”

Why not come along this bank holiday Monday to see the zoo’s latest arrival? There will also be walk-about animal characters and a full schedule of animal feeding times for all the family to enjoy!