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Ethiopia: the hyena whisperers

They feed meat nightly to hyena packs that roam the city streets.

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HARAR, Ethiopia — Twenty-four-year-old Salamo Fantan slapped a strip of goat meat on the stick held between his teeth. Seven or eight wild hyenas darted around him, snatching the meat from the stick, or yanking it out of Fantan’s hands.

The animals look like large brown dogs, with bone-crushing white teeth shining in the headlights. They gnawed on the bloody scraps, while Fantan called to them in a loud resonate voice. A few tourists snapped pictures. Local Harari women with baskets on their heads glanced at the spectacle as they strolled by, but they did not pause.

In Harar, a 1,000-year-old walled city in eastern Ethiopia, hyenas roam the streets at night. Usually scavengers, hyenas have been known to attack, killing livestock and children. But locals say if the animals are treated kindly, people have nothing to fear.

Hyenas, they say, are their neighbors and spiritual guides. The animals rid the streets of garbage and bad spirits, and tell the future. And if they are not treated well, hyenas will exact their revenge.

Men like Fantan have been hand-feeding hyenas for more than 25 years for a small fee from frightened tourists. But the relationship between the Hararis and the hyenas is ancient.

“We must feed them, if there is tourists or not,” he said. “If we have enough money or not — we must feed them.”

Youseff Mume Saleh, who nightly feeds a different family of hyenas on the other side of town, said he cares for the animals to protect his farm and his city. If they are not fed, he said, they will eat the city’s farm animals out of anger.

“I feed them for the safety of my area and of my city,” he said, as he rested on a stone wall after feeding about a dozen hyenas in the rain.

Saleh also said he understands the hyena language, and from the animals he gets news from far away. When the news is bad, he said, the hyenas cry.

“They speak about all the world,” he said, “about everywhere.”