Mona is enthralled by how the hyena resists humanity’s desire for binary classifications: good/evil, male/female, scavenger/hunter. She is reminded of her anarchist squatter days in 1980s Vancouver.
- Hyena Subpoena Cat Kidd
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hyena
If I could be a hybrid species, here’s what I would be:
a creature who’s one-half hyena, and one-half me
And should I be called to testify upon my own behalf,
I’d take the stand and be sworn in, then laugh and
laugh and laugh
In the Kanuri language of the Bornu region
of Western Africa, the word for hyena –
bultu – connotes one who is unsettled,
does not remain in one state, an individual
who vacillates between strength and weakness.
Hyena are even able to shift between sexes,
as well as from human to hyena form –
the verb bultungin signifying,
I transform myself into a hyena.
There’s said to be an entire town or two who can do it.
A formidable ability, considering hyena notoriety
both proverbially as well as in popular mythology.
The public image of hyena is generally not very pretty,
because neither according to many is the hyena –
with its tragic mouth and down-slope eyes,
ursine lumbering and slobbering like a zombie
Saint Bernard, mournful-looking as the mug
of Goya’s Kronos.
But according to a proverb of the Hausa tribe,
Every fault is laid at the door of the hyena,
though it does not steal a bale of cloth.
The tongue of a hyena is barbed, like the tongue
of a cat. Some humans being are surprised by that
because, they suppose, hyena more resemble dogs than cats,
when in fact they’re neither of those.
Most closely related to meerkats and mongoose,
hyena constitute their very own Family:
Hyaenidae, Order: Carnivora, Genus and Species: Crocuta crocuta,
named after a mythical wolf-dog with supernaturally
powerful teeth and instantaneous digestion,
which lured dogs and men to their doom,
assuming a human voice and calling them by name,
feigning the identity of a loved one in distress
just beyond that clump of shrubbery.
Not such a trustworthy namesake to be saddled with,
a little like naming someone Low down snake in the grass,
or something like that, rather stacking the odds against
And so yes, nobody loves a hyena –
they’re carrion-eaters. Grave-robbers,
shape-shifters, liars and cheaters with
a bad reputation for repugnant gustation.
This, in addition to being cowards and scavengers.
Demons and enemies of the church, overturning
sepulchres and devouring the corpses of innocent converts.
Furthermore, hyena are sexual perverts.
Known whores and hermaphrodites.
Chicks with dicks who can switch at will
which sexy bits they wish to copulate with.
They operate within the mythical dimension,
with intentions that are shifty and shady.
Always changing from one thing to another,
not entirely stable. You might almost feel sorry
for the poor guys, but bear in mind the Mandi
proverb which reminds –
It’s never wise to show a hyena how well you can bite.
Hyena, hyena, cattle of night,
courser of witches with lanterns alight
burning hyena butter – anal glandular putty
rubbed up against branches, in two tones like
Tiger Balm, red & white, gathered by witches
in gourds to light their course, then mounting hyena
take flight onto the astral plane to do nuisance there.
Hyena, hyena, cattle of night, courser of witches
with lanterns alight burning hyena butter,
gathered in gourds to light their course –
here the hyena is Bringer of Light.
With eyes open wide and a fine set of canines,
hyena cubs come into the world via the so-called
pseudo-penis of their mother – in fact, an elongated
clitoris of identical dimensions to the male apparatus,
making labour a particularly arduous process,
but still downright impressive, and not well under-
stood, why the females are packing in the hyena
Then there’s that laugh of hers, that maniacal
cackle which screws with Eustachian tubes,
haunting the hearer ad nauseum like some kind
of voodoo tinnitus. Now a crying baby,
then suddenly a crazy lady. Really makes you
wonder what hyena find so funny.
Unless that laugh is a call to bear witness,
to some shift in emphasis – from general culpability
to a clearer analysis, of how maybe you’ve been lied to
by the same set of standards that has tried to
From symbol of depravity to source of light
and clarity, what hyena best exemplify is that
which can’t be quantified – like Natural Science
before Wallace and Darwin, a curiosity cabinet,
resisting easy definition.
If I could be a hybrid species, here’s what I’d be:
a creature who’s half hyena and half me.
And should I be called to testify upon my own behalf,
I’d take the stand and be sworn in, then laugh and laugh
and laugh –
Meanwhile, the profile emerges of hyena as scavenger,
despite that they’re equally talented hunters.
Indeed, it may be lions do the lion’s share of
scavenging, if we tally who steals who’s kill
most frequently – but lions have a better public image,
shall we say, and so, as explained in a proverb
of Swahili, The leavings of the lion are welcome to the hyena.
So the truth is, hyena are just betters eaters.
Seriously. They’re marvels of digestive efficiency.
Hyena feces are as white as chalk and dry as Ryvita,
I’ve seen it, you could probably draw a hop-scotch
on the sidewalk with that shit.
Enzymes in their digestive tracts can extract blood
from a stone, with tooth and jaw designed to grind
bone, not a narrow lick of marrow left unscoured.
Nothing going to waste.
It kind of brings back happy memories of your
anarchist squatter days in East Vancouver in the
late eighties. Scavenger was never a bad word, it was
what you aspired to be. Diving into dumpsters in the
parking lot behind Safeway – you could pretty well
feed all thirty-eight squatters on what the
supermarket chucked out every day. And can it really
if the lion’s already abandoned it and walked away?
And when the supermarket started putting padlocks
on the dumpsters, wasn’t that pretty sour grapes?
So you went similarly out of your way to subsist
on the waste of society, because you didn’t want to pay
for what it pandered. And in six abandoned houses,
squatters took up residence. Hooked up phone and
power, just like regular citizens. Then petitioned the
city to save those perfectly livable bungalows from
demolition – instead of throwing up still more fancy
condos for which not a soul in the whole neighbor-
hood had the dough.
The point wasn’t solely to draw attention to the
plight of the homeless, it was to avoid joining them.
But when your Great Aunt Enid saw squatters on the
evening news, she refused to accept that any relation
of hers could fall in with people like those –
long-hairs, political radicals, unwed mothers –
Couldn’t they settle into proper jobs instead
of cluttering up the steps of City Hall?
Great Aunt Enid had worked as an office clerk
her entire life and it never hurt her any.
But you do have a job, you tell Great Aunt Enid,
and this is aside from rescuing perfectly edible fruits
& vegetables from landfills. You also work in the
stainless steel steamy industrial kitchen of some
fancy hotel downtown, where they chuck out enough
food every night to feed a crowd. Food no employee
is even allowed to salvage, at least not officially,
which is why some rules are not meant to be paid
So you arrange to be the one who takes out the trash
at the end of the night, dash to a phone-booth, and call
up a certain United Church on the downtown East
Side – a neighbourhood where homeless persons often
line the curb like that ridge of dust at the edge of the
pan which never gets swept up, quite.
And you wait in the back alley for the minister’s black
Mariah with headlights dimmed, and you deliver the
food bins to him, carefully stacked in garbage bags,
a flat of mashed potatoes and carrots, a tray of Boston
Creams or whatever it happens to be, which breach of
legality the good folks at the downtown church are
only too happy to recycle into meals for local people –
the broke, addicted and mentally ill – helping keep
body and soul together another night.
Because we might as well admit it
Most folks don’t love the homeless any more
than they’d love to see a family of hyena move in
next door. They likely have lice, or worse, homeless-
ness may be contagious like some economic virus –
best to not even look at a homeless person, or suddenly
find yourself flat on your ass and addicted to crack
at the corner of Poverty & Despair and then you
But Hope springs eternal from darkened doorways
and shrubberies – the more dire the fight for survival,
the greater the necessity for levity, which must be why
they call it making light –