Bear Canyon at the San Diego Zoo has a couple of new faces once again. Now on display at the bottom of the canyon before entering Sun Bear Forest are nine-year-old Zephyr and Turbo, two spotted hyena brothers. Each weighing in at around 125 pounds (57 kilograms) and sporting beautiful dark spots along their yellow coats, the two can be difficult to tell apart. However, if you look closely, Turbo has a larger ear notch on his right ear that extends inward toward his head. He also has larger, more prominent spots along the top of his back than Zephyr.
Since the boys are new to my area, I’m just beginning to learn their different personalities. Zephyr seems to be more forthcoming, usually being the first to approach us or respond to our voices with an inquisitive look. Turbo is a bit more reserved, but will also approach for attention. Even though these two are quite friendly toward their keepers, we will never use our hands to scratch and pet them because they have powerful jaws capable of crushing bones. Instead, we substitute a back scratcher that we push between the bars of their enclosure to give them a good rub down. This is welcomed with great enthusiasm, each hyena stretching his neck this way and that to hit at just the right spot.
Out on exhibit, Turbo and Zephyr enjoy basking in the sun, often snuggled together in their Bermuda hay beds. The exhibit contains a large tree platform that Turbo especially enjoys. Unlike Zephyr, who still appears to be unsure of the platform, Turbo will readily stand at the highest point to survey his surroundings. Neither hyena is at all disturbed by Zoo visitors or bus tour traffic; in fact, they seem to enjoy the stimulating visual and olfactory experiences of an ever-changing crowd. They also take notice of birds flying overhead and siamang and gibbon vocalizations and have been seen sniffing the air often. Contrary to popular belief that hyenas are scavengers, hyenas are actually one of the most common and fierce predators in their native home of Africa. You can only imagine what they’re thinking when mallards land in their pool!
Also in their exhibit is a two-tiered pool complete with a waterfall. Hyenas are great swimmers, and Turbo and Zephyr have already shown their love of water. Zephyr especially has taken up bone-burying duty with the pool being his chosen site. We haven’t figured out the reason yet, but he likes to walk into the pool, drop the bone and then paw at it as if to bury it. When Turbo leaves his bone, Zephyr will often go get it and also bury it in the pool. Some time later, the bones will be out again, usually in bed so the boys can chew at their leisure. One guess has been that the pool might serve to soften the bones after soaking. I have noticed that since this behavior began, less of the bone is left over the next day.
Also called the laughing hyena, spotted hyenas have a variety of vocalizations, the most notorious being a giggling sound similar to human laughter. So far, none of us has heard this yet, but it is my understanding that this noise is produced as a result of fear or nervousness. It can also happen in response to feeling that a food item will be taken away. Since Turbo and Zephyr seem to be best buddies and don’t compete over their food items, we may not hear this noise. However, you never know as new enrichment is introduced if something will cause excitement enough for any of their other vocalizations to escape. So far I’ve heard I’ve heard two of their sounds: one is a low grumbling sound in anticipation of being fed that sounds a lot like a fog horn; the other is a loud “DOOO WHOP” call most often heard in the early morning hours as we arrive. One of my fellow keepers even heard a fancy trilling noise at the end of this call one day. Hopefully, we’ll get to hear more from these guys in the future!
On your next visit to the San Diego Zoo, come see Zephyr and Turbo. You’re sure to be impressed by their unique appearance and interesting behavior. They’ve already won me over!
Hali Anderson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.
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