Hyenas in northern Ethiopia are glad today is Easter, and it's not because they're religious. It's because they can finally get their jaws around the butcher scraps they've been deprived of throughout the holy month, and stop chasing down the scrawny donkeys they've been eating as a substitute.
Northern Ethiopia has a depleted prey base, so the spotted hyenas in the region depend largely on humans to provide them with their food. In the rural and urban areas, those humans are mostly Orthodox Tewahedo Christians. Most of the year, the hyenas feast happily on the meat scraps butchers throw away. During Lent, however, the Orthodox Tewahedo Christians engage in a no-meat fast, opting for a vegan diet. No meat means no butcher scraps. What is a spotted hyena to do?
A new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology has the answer. A scat analysis of spotted hyenas found that the hyenas continue to consume cattle hair throughout Lent, which the researchers gathered was in large part due to the activities of the College of Veterinary Science, which continues its activities even during the meatless periods and then dumps the carcasses afterward. But deprived of their usual easy pickings, hyenas turn to hunting, and their prey of choice is the donkey. Donkeys not only fall into hyenas' preferred body mass for prey, they are also kept outside more than other livestock. That combination means a lot of hyenas spend Lent flossing donkey ears from their teeth.
The point of this study is that certain animals, like hyenas, are highly adaptive when it comes to human behavior. Hyenas know where their meat is chopped and don't attack humans, but they know that once those sweet entrails dry up, there are alternative sources of food. That sort of information can help inform policies to decrease the hyena population.
The big question is, if hyenas eat donkeys during most of Lent, what do they eat on Fridays?
Hungry, hungry hyena photo by Guido Appenzeller.