Yet surprisingly a large amount of results for “Hyenas in America” are people submitting questions like “Are hyenas found in America?” or “Where do Hyenas in America live?” to many of those question help sites like Yahoo Answers. The response to all these questions are the same, officially no species of hyena lives in America. So why are so many people asking about them? It is because the people who submit these questions do so after seeing for themselves or having a family member see unusual animals that bare a more than passing resemblance to a hyena.
Since the shooting of the famous Shunka Warakin specimen of 1886 reports of strange Hyena like creatures keep coming in from Maine and British Columbia, yet interestingly enough I found a very large volume of Hyena-like creature sightings for decades all across the South. Reports from Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and a very long history in Arkansas all describe large creatures that have sloping backs, long muzzles, large teeth, and are often spotted But one state in particular kept coming up over and over again many in very recent years, Kentucky.
Spotted or Laughing Hyena
In 2004 near Lexington, Kentucky, a couple saw a strange creature on the side of the road as they drove by. It was described having bluish-grey fur with dark “splotches”, a long muzzle, large teeth, a sloping back and was about 3 feet tall. They had no idea what kind of creature they were looking at, so they searched the Internet and found one that matched closely, the hyena. Over the next five years similar looking creatures are seen across Kentucky’s roadways.
Yet the most curious question I found about hyenas in America was someone asking if the Kentucky Department of Fish and Game was intentionally releasing hyenas in order to control the rising elk population. Can you imagine a government agency releasing exotic animals that have the potential to be dangerous to people in order to reduce a pest animal’s population? We do know that various governments have been guilty of releasing foreign creatures into an ecosystem that is no use to them. The cane toads in Australia is a good example. Yet I doubt that hyenas would be on anybody’s list for creatures to release in order to reduce another animal’s population. But again why would someone ask that?
Well because several people from around Lost Mountain (a more perfect name couldn’t be faked) had seen some rather unusual creatures. One witness said she saw a creature that had a large hump on its back and was described as “an honest to God hyena” running with a pack of coyotes. Another person who grew up around Lost Mountain recalled often hearing sounds very reminiscent of a women laughing coming from the mountain on numerous occasions for years.
So what could people be seeing? The only species of hyena ever found in North America was Chamaporthetes, commonly known as the running hyena. Officially it went extinct about 780,000 years ago. Could a small population have survived up until now? Maybe, but is there a simpler explanation?
The most likely explanation is that people often import exotic animals to keep as either pets or in private zoos. Some of these animals could have been intentionally released when they got too big for the owners to handle. Escapees occur too. One recent example was in 2006 a striped hyena got out of its owner’s yard in South Carolina.
Another thing to consider is that while it is very unlikely that the Kentucky Wildlife Department is intentionally releasing hyenas into the wild, they are intentionally releasing another large predator into the wilds of Kentucky, the wolf. Wolves were once native to Kentucky, but were wiped out due to persecution from farmers. Over the past several years, though, Wildlife officials have been trying to right this wrong. It could be that since a lot of people have grown up living in Kentucky without having wolves in their back yard, and now all of a sudden here they are, it could cause some mistaken identity.
Since the wolf’s reintroduction into Kentucky starting in the mid-90’s reports of the ‘hyena-like’ creatures have been on the rise. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.