Another Person's Person

Hyena wearing collarPhoto by Marcus Baynes-Rock. A radio-collared hyena in the Masai Mara.

Recently I was involved in the planning stage of a research project which is aimed at better understanding what is called a ‘coupled human/natural’ system in Ethiopia. The ‘human’ element of the project constitutes the rural and urban human population of the country while the ‘natural’ constitutes spotted hyenas and other animals who might rely on anthropogenic landscapes or foods. For many scholars, including myself, the dualism of human/natural is immediately problematic because it suggests that somehow humans are subject to different evolutionary and ecological processes than the rest of life on the planet. But in this case, I would consider it a label (albeit a problematic one) applied to a research process which essentially aims to better understand how humans and other animals and plants interact within dynamic, multispecies systems.

While I was enthusiastic about the research project, it transpired that I had to withdraw my support. My reason for doing so was that despite my urging to the contrary, the principal investigators were insistent on using invasive methods in their study of spotted hyenas in the ‘natural’ part of the research. The methods include immobilising hyenas, taking blood samples, doing biopsies, and attaching collars with gps trackers which would allow researchers to follow the movements of hyenas remotely. In the field of animal studies (excluding perhaps chimp studies) these methods are prevalent, and there is an interplay between the methods used and the research questions being asked. In other words, the acceptability of the methods allows biologists to ask research questions which can most easily be answered by using the methods. In fact, it was stated to me that the research questions of the human/hyena research project could only be answered using invasive sampling methods.

My opposition to the use of invasive methods is based on my own experience of conducting ethnographic studies of hyenas in Ethiopia. My first reservation stems from my familiarity with hyenas that tells me how immobilising and collaring them would be traumatic and definitely contrary to what the hyenas would want for themselves. For many scientists, the wishes and needs of hyenas are secondary to the answering of research questions; however, measures are taken to minimise risk for the hyenas. But in this the wishes of the hyenas are not a matter for consideration. As for the trauma of being immobilised, sampled, collared and handled by humans – who are terrifying to hyenas – this is disregarded in terms of how it might affect the research results. It would be very difficult to make a comparison of the movements of a hyena with and without a collar considering the collar is needed to track movements. These methodological problems are usually set aside.

Dingo ImagePhoto by Marcus Baynes-Rock. Captive-bred ‘pure’ dingo pups born out of season

My second reservation is based on my ethnographic studies of people in Ethiopia. There was one recurring theme that emerged when I spoke with people about hyenas: hyenas live in a parallel society with similar social structures, similar wants and needs, and similar ethical considerations to humans. This was made very clear in March of 2010 in the town of Kombolcha. A resident who had lost some goats to the local hyenas laid out poison in retaliation, which killed eight hyenas. Thereafter, there was a series of hyena attacks on children resulting in one dead child and several injured. The Town officials were expected to act but they faced a problem: how to stop the attacks without harming any hyenas. The reason why they did not countenance killing hyenas was that they believed that the hyenas, if harmed, would retaliate in turn and the conflict would escalate. In a meeting with the town’s elders, the suggestion was made that they should find someone who knew hyena language and negotiate a truce. This suggestion was seriously considered, but in the interests of a quick solution the officials ordered that the excess vegetation in the town be cleared. The logic was that the hyenas deprived of hiding places would be unable to launch attacks. There were no attacks after that.

While I am aware that most biologists would dismiss these people’s beliefs as quaint and folksy, I suggest that these beliefs impact the way hyena studies should be done in Ethiopia. This is because the ethics of immobilising hyenas are no longer contained in a closed ethical circuit consisting of biologists and animal ethics committees at universities. Rather these ethics concern people in Ethiopia whose perceptions and ideas about hyenas differ from those of the academy. Moreover, it is the Ethiopian voices that should carry the most weight because it is in their backyard that the study is being conducted. Hence, what might seem like a simple matter of ensuring hyena welfare according to a set of ethical guidelines becomes a very fraught matter due to the cultural sensitivities of the host country. These are issues that are apparent to anthropologists but overlooked by biologists; they highlight yet another way in which the human/nature binary is so problematic. In creating a separation of disciplines (and ethics committees), it has created ethical systems that are blind to aspects of ecologies that demand ethical consideration. For many Ethiopian people, the issue with immobilising hyenas is not simply whether it can be done with little harm, but whether it can be done with the consent of the hyenas involved.