The magic power of Hyenas

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Morgeta Olemaria whooped and giggled as he tossed slabs of raw goat meat out of the basket in his lap. About a dozen wild hyenas surrounded him, each anxious to snap up the next scrap. The hyenas — large doglike creatures with bone-crushing sharp teeth — danced as their names were called. "It is the duty of my family," Mr. Olemaria said after a feeding one night, while the hyenas settled down for an after-dinner nap.

Normally scavengers living off of animal carcasses, hyenas can turn vicious and attack livestock and people. Five years ago, hyenas in this remote, ancient city killed two children. But in Harar, hyenas are considered an integral part of society. They rid the city of garbage and "devils," predict the future and are said to protect the people. And if they are not treated well, they will seek revenge, locals say.

Hararis say the nearby town of Kembolcha lives in fear of hyenas. When some farmers tried to poison Kembolcha hyenas, the animals took their revenge on their human neighbors' families, killing animals and three children. But Mr. Olemaria was at ease with the beasts. And as they gathered for their meal on the wide dirt road, children and women with colorful bundles on their heads skittered past the hyenas, barely glancing at the animals.

For about 25 years, men like Mr. Olemaria have been feeding hyenas on the outskirts of the 1,000-year-old walled Old City of Harar by hand nightly. They take a small fee from tourists who light the scene with the headlights of taxis. But when the tourists don't appear, the men still feed the animals. They say if they do not, Harari livestock and children will be in danger. "The reason the hyenas don't eat my cattle, cows and goats is because we take care of them," said Youseff Mume Saleh, a farmer who feeds a large family of hyenas every night in his front yard.

Mr. Saleh coos the animals' names as he calls them over to rip slabs of meat off a stick in his mouth or from his hand: Chaltu, Bote, Bin-bin Derartu and Willy. Mr. Saleh said the animals bring news from Europe or other parts of Africa. When the news is bad, the hyenas cry. For the hyena men, however, their personal attachment to the animals goes beyond the practical, or even the spiritual. They say they have lived peacefully with hyenas for hundreds of years and rely on the animals to protect the remote city. Hyenas, they say, are their family.

"My father taught me how to feed them," said Mr. Saleh, as he watched the animals’ mill around his yard, searching for leftovers. "If I die, my son will take care of the hyenas."  Source ( Washington Times)
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