Sunday, December 9, 2012

Fraternizing with the locals


The deep, resonant calls - each ascending smoothly in pitch - were spine-tinglingly loud.
I dashed outside into the cool, river-scented darkness. The night reverberated with the machinery-clatter of toads, cicadas and crickets, yet the eerie, other-worldly whoops were loud enough to thrum within my chest.

Somewhere, down below me in the riverbed, a spotted hyena was calling to his/her clan.

Now even if you’ve never been to Africa (and if you’re into wildlife, WHY NOT?); even if you’ve never seen a hyena in the fur, you’ll recognise these calls. Beyond any other sight or sound, the hyena’s whoops epitomize the African night (and feature in virtually every wildlife documentary ever made on this continent).
And of all the wild places in the world, Africa - at night - is probably the scariest. It's also our ancestral home. For millions of years our forebears stared out into the dark, shivering at the sound of the hyena’s call. It’s no surprise then, that the eerie whoops stir a deep, atavistic trepidation. Grinning insanely into the dark, I stood revelling in the trills of fear that fluttered up and down my spine.

[You can listen to a spotted hyena whooping here (button no 2)].

Hyena-kind evolved from mongooses and civets about 10 million years ago. The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) has haunted the African savanna for as long as humankind's existed. It can also digest teeth (I just thought you’d like to know that).

Now I don’t want you to start thinking that hyenas whoop simply for our titillation. This long-distance call (audible up to 5 km/3 miles) is the SMS of the hyena-world. Roaming clan-members use it to keep in touch and call for assistance when uninvited visitors rock up for dinner.

Whoop-studying researchers - plotting the calls of different hyenas on spectrograms - found that each hyena has its own distinctive whoop; something I guess the hyenas already knew.
Although an individual’s voice gets deeper as it ages, the unique pattern of its whoops remain consistent year after year; so hyenas can recognise one another from whoop alone.

When researchers played back recordings of cubs (who start whooping at 3-4 weeks), the whooper’s mum (but not other mothers) rushed to the speaker (oh, that is unless Mum was dining, in which case she just glowered in the right direction – hey, you gotta get your priorities right). Close family members also responded, and the amount of time they spent eyeing the speaker was directly proportional to how closely related they were to the little whooper. In fact, hyenas seem to use whoops to flaunt their identity during brawls (and no one scraps as well as spotted hyenas).

Now I have to admit I wasn’t thinking about any of this as I stood at the bottom of my garden the other night. I was peering into the darkness, straining to pinpoint the exact location of the caller.
Umm, exactly which side of the river was the creature prowling?
Then my heart-stopped.
Directly behind me (and I’m talking one or two metres/yards) an answering call rose up. Fear clutched my chest as the eerie, resonant wail swelled upwards. But after a few moments I realised that the call was not a hyena’s. Although almost as loud, and with the same deep, tonal qualities, it continued to rise, and then undulate, in pitch. It was probably the most desolate sound I’ve ever heard. Still barely able to breathe, I crept toward the uncanny, penetrating wail.
What could make such a call?
And there it was; lying on my door mat.
My husky, Wizard.

‘You won’t believe the riffraff you meet around here these days’.
Now in truth, I couldn’t have been more shocked if I’d stumbled upon the cat reciting Shakespeare. This was like no dog’s howl I’d ever heard. It was a blood-curdling keening, evocative of wildness, primal instinct and vast empty lands. It was NOT something that should be emanating from a household pet! In the seven years that Wizard has companionably shared the humdrum domesticity of my life, I’ve never heard him utter such a sound.

Wizard, pining for the tundra?

I guess the whole incident made me realise that, just as our own hearts and minds were honed by millions of years on the African savanna, so too our domestic animals carry within them the legacy of their ancestors’ lives. It’s so easy to overlook our pets, to somehow believe they’re creations of our own (like TV or motor cars or computers). But our companion animals are profoundly wild beings, gifted to us with just the flimsiest wrappings of domesticity.
And what an utterly amazing privilege it is to share so intimately in the life of a wholly different species.


  1. Wow. What a RELIEF and giant surprise! Good for your dog--has some wild dog chops! And kinda saved your bacon, at least relative to that being a hyena on your doorstep. I would love to hear your dog's call. What a wonderfully told tale (as usual) and great reminder. =)

    You are such a brave creature. It's funny how I forget you'll be alright while reading scary stuff 'cause obviously you're writing the post.

    I learned a while back to pay attention to my cats in order to aid my efforts to keep my chickens from being eaten. Cats are indoors only, chickens are out (of course), and we have a) lots of big windows, and b) (for the U.S.) lots of predators. If the cats start staring hard at something outside the house, I know to try and find it because it could be another cat, a dog, bobcat, fox, coyote or (in 1 instance) mountain lion.

    While they are chubby and coddled, they are also wired for the wild. Like your pup. =)

  2. I always look forward to your posts, and love your style of writing!

  3. Very cool post! I love that whooop - one of the many things I love about Africa.

  4. Your description of the howling sends chills down my spine .... and reminds me of the wonderful times I've spent listening to wolves howling.

  5. Biobabbler,
    Just watch those cats; that's one species that doesn't even attempt to look domesticated. They're probably at the window surreptitiously semaphoring the predators in an attempt to organise a break-out.
    (PS. I think it would be worth sacrificing a chicken for an 'up-close and personal' mountain lion moment - sorry, chicken.)

    Thanks for your support. I've got so many half-written blog posts that I've scrapped because they just seem so tedious and boring!

    May those whoops haunt the darkness for many millennia to come.

    Wolves howling together sound seriously spooky, but (as with jackals) I'm always surprised that their voices are so high-pitched.
    Oh dear, I wonder if it says something about our society, that we (I?) expect scary things to have deep voices!


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