Welcome, Spotted Hyenas!

Posted at 9:37 am February 22, 2008 by Hali OConnor

 spotted hyenaBear 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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13 Responses to “Welcome, Spotted Hyenas!”

  1. Diana says:

    In between rain storms, I managed to take a quick stroll at the zoo. After saying hello to ZZ and Bai, I couldn’t wait to see Turbo and Zephyr for the first time. Turbo was up on the platform and Zephyr was snoozing on the hay bed towards the back of their enclosure. Both are gorgeous with spots definitely dominating their coats. Turbo’s nose was fully activated, seeming to calculate exactly everything in his midst–and beyond! With his nose, he must have certainly smelled the burgers cooking on the grill down at the Canyon Cafe! I am really excited to see hyenas at our SDZ and look forward to visiting them again and again. Thanks, Hali, for your wonderful report.

  2. Lainie says:

    How exciting. This is a first as far as I can remember, yes ? I look forward to seeing them when I make it down there in the next month or 2. Thank you for their introduction Hali.

  3. Neleh says:

    Thanks for keeping us up to date with your 2 lovely spotted hyenas, one of my favourite mammals! I am very interested in the body measurements and weights of spotted hyenas – have you ever weighed and measured your 2 males?

  4. jordan henk says:

    i think this is awsome

  5. TWEETIE BIRD 12 says:


  6. Antonella says:

    i love san diego zoo it has lots of animals

  7. Torch Girl says:

    Hyenas rule! They are the moat beautiful animals on the African plain! Turbo and Zephyr are the Fantastic 2!

  8. claire says:

    i’ve n3vr n3w so much about hyenas im so into animals and now i’ve learn3d alot more tanks to u.

  9. Laura says:

    Hi, you were saying that Zephyr likes hiding bones in the pool, wild hyenas do this too to hide the scent of food from animals that might want to steal it, admittedly works better in running water 🙂 maybe he can smell the other predators you have and is hiding his and Turbo’s food for safe keeping.

  10. kylie says:


    I am an English animal management student and have been issued with an assignment to investigate the diet of both wild and captive spotted hyenas. I have discovered loads about the wild diet but not very much on their captive diet and was wondering if you could help in any way.

    i would love to visit the zoo some day hope fully sooner rather than later

    hope to hear from you soon


  11. Hali Anderson says:

    Hi Kylie, we feed our spotted hyenas a daily diet of zoo carnivore meat. This is a special diet prepared from beef for many of the carnivores in the Zoo. In addition to this, they receive cow femur bones twice a week, mice once a week, rats once a week, and rabbits once a week. All of the animals are already dead and come to us frozen (of course, we thaw them first!). We also give them treats of beef heart, different dry foods, yams and carrots, fish, or any other food treats we might think of to try. Hope this helps and good luck with your project! Hali

  12. bleeble blabble says:

    Hali, You are the bomb

  13. Susan says:

    Oh, I am *so excited* to see these boys! I have been a hyena lover for years, and I’ve been searching high and low for a zoo that actually has a few. When I knew we’d be in San Diego for the winter holidays, I looked this up.

    I can’t wait! They’re such fascinating animals. Are there any plans to acquire more, or are two just enough and less trouble?