By Doug Oakley
Scientists and UC Berkeley administrators are scrambling for money to keep a colony of 19 spotted hyenas which they have studied in the Berkeley hills for the last 27 years, or they could end up in zoos.
The Berkeley Hyena Colony was started in 1985 and continues to be the largest captive group in the world.
Scientists have been studying the female spotted hyenas' "masculinized" genitalia, their unique sexual and reproductive system and both sexes' social behavior, iron-clad immunity systems and vocalizations.
The studies of hyena hormones have been helpful in understanding human problems such as why some girls when born appear to be boys or why adolescents have difficulty with impulse control.
Federal funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation has dried up and researchers are seeking $150,000 for the next year. They also would like to establish an endowment to keep it going indefinitely.
But scientists involved in the colony have differing views of just how dire the funding situation is.
Stephen Glickman, who helped start the colony at UC Berkeley, said he's ready to give three of the hyenas to the Oakland Zoo, "partly due to funding" and partly because the zoos' hyenas had died. But he downplayed the seriousness of the funding issue made public by a web site started by a colleague from Kansas State University.
"We're piecing together money, but we want to do so quietly," Glickman said. "Nobody is going to be euthanized, but some are going to zoos. We're always scrambling for money. The idea is to get more stable grants for the colony. If we had the animals supported, we can go out and get more money for research."
But Tona Melgarejo, an associate professor of human nutrition and immunology at Kansas State University, has created a slick web sit called www.hyenafund.org, to raise funds for the colony which he says is in danger of being disbanded.
"The grant money is running out," said Melgarejo, who has studied the immune systems of the Berkeley hyenas for 10 years. "As soon we knew that we dropped everything we were doing. If we let them go, there is no way we could recreate it in my generation. To rebuild the facility would be millions of dollars."
Melgarejo's web site includes a pitch for the $150,000 in funding with a link that takes visitors to the Kansas State University foundation for giving. He said it costs so much to keep them because they need people with special skills to take care of them and their home has special fences and doors to keep them from getting out.
Glickman said spotted hyenas are valuable to study because the females have such unusual genitals and at times totally dominate males. During successful hunts in the wild, female spotted hyenas call the shots over adult males and have priority when feeding, Glickman said in an article on the web site.
“They are really interesting beause the females look just like males, but they they have no external vaginal opening, they mate and give birth and urniate through the clitoris, they get erections just like males and the clitoris looks just like a penis,” Glickman said. “They have a scrotum too, but there’s nothing in there.”
Melgarejo finds them interesting because “ Their immune system is one of the toughtest in the animal kingdom.”
"They can defend against dramatic diseases, like listeriosis, rabies, brucellosis, salmonella, anything that can affect the digestive system," Melgarejo said. "Just about the only thing that can kill a hyena is a human or a male lion and that is not an everyday event."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.