MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
If you've seen "The Lion King," you know hyenas are often portrayed as ruthless, vicious, foolish creatures. But in Ethiopia, just outside the ancient walled city of Harar, a family has been hand-feeding packs of them for decades. People there have learned not only to coexist with hyenas but to appreciate them. NPR's Eyder Peralta sends us this postcard.
ABBAS YUSUF: (Whistling).
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Abbas Yusuf sets up just outside the city walls. He's in the middle of a field, sitting on a rock with a woven basket full of meat.
YUSUF: (Speaking Amharic).
PERALTA: So the sun has set, and the stars are out. And there's three hyenas just sort of roaming around as the hyena man throws little pieces of meat at them. He calls at them - whistling, calling each one by their name.
PERALTA: It was Yusuf's father who started feeding hyenas almost 50 years ago. The hyenas showed up on their own and helped themselves to his dog food.
YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Then one day, our father missed feeding them. Then they get angry, and they start to dig the wall of our house. And they were close to eat us.
PERALTA: Out of fear, his dad sold all the peanuts on his farm and bought a basket full of meat. Since that day and without fail, someone in the Yusuf family has fed the hyenas of Harar. Yusuf says, like his dad, he's come to know them. He knows where they den. He talks to them like humans, asking them to leave workers on their farm alone. And more importantly, he says, they've become friends.
YUSUF: (Through interpreter) Before my father started feeding hyenas, they were eating old people, and they were eating buried bodies. But later on, when my father started to feed, they stopped eating people.
PERALTA: Claudio Sillero studies hyenas at the University of Oxford. He says he very much doubts that the hyenas in Harar would forgo a chance to take a bite out of a drunk man lying in an alley. But hyenas in Harar are different. In Tanzania, for example, they can be significant man eaters.
CLAUDIO SILLERO: That I haven't come across in Ethiopia, and I haven't come across the closeness of hyenas and people that you encounter in Ethiopia elsewhere, so I think that's quite special.
PERALTA: More importantly, he says, Yusuf and his family have given hyenas a marketing makeover. Hararis walk alongside hyenas. They let them den in the wooded areas outside churches. The hyenas bring in tourists, and they clean up the city by eating trash, excrement or dead animals. So the Hararis appreciate them and tend not to kill them like in other places.
CLAUDIO SILLERO: It is wonderful that there are examples, such as the one in Harar, that show that people can't coexist with large carnivores.
PERALTA: By the time the moon makes it halfway across the sky, Yusuf is surrounded by a dozen hyenas. And suddenly, after he calls and calls, a mama hyena shows up. She's not skittish like the other ones, so Yusuf begins handing all of us pieces of meat on sticks. We feed her. She jumps on our backs.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's going to be a bit heavy. Stay straight.
PERALTA: And suddenly these creatures aren't so mysterious. Their ears are round, and their snout is short. They're curious and playful. And in the right light, they even look a little cute. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Harar, Ethiopia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.