I've been fascinated by spotted hyenas ever since the late 90s when I initially learned about them, but re-reading about them on Wikipedia, I'm again struck by what amazing animals they are:
Although individual spotted hyenas only care for their own young, and males take no part in raising their young, cubs are able to identify relatives as distantly related as great-aunts. Also, males associate more closely with their own daughters rather than unrelated cubs, and the latter favour their fathers by acting less aggressively toward them.
Spotted hyena societies are more complex than those of other carnivorous mammals, and are remarkably similar to those of cercopithecine primates in respect to group size, structure, competition and cooperation. Like cercopithecine primates, spotted hyenas use multiple sensory modalities, recognise individual conspecifics, are conscious that some clan-mates may be more reliable than others, recognise 3rd party kin and rank relationships among clan-mates, and adaptively use this knowledge during social decision making.
[...] A study done by evolutionary anthropologists demonstrated that spotted hyenas outperform chimpanzees on cooperative problem-solving tests; captive pairs of spotted hyenas were challenged to tug two ropes in unison to earn a food reward, successfully cooperating and learning the maneuvers quickly without prior training. Experienced hyenas even helped inexperienced clan-mates to solve the problem. In contrast, chimps and other primates often require extensive training, and cooperation between individuals is not always as easy for them. The intelligence of the spotted hyena was attested to by Dutch colonists in 19th century South Africa, who noted that hyenas were exceedingly cunning and suspicious, particularly after successfully escaping from traps. Spotted hyenas seem to plan on hunting specific species in advance; hyenas have been observed to indulge in activities such as scent marking before setting off to hunt zebras, a behaviour which does not occur when they target other prey species. Also, spotted hyenas have been recorded to utilise deceptive behaviour, including giving alarm calls during feeding when no enemies are present, thus frightening off other hyenas and allowing them to temporarily eat in peace. Similarly, mothers will emit alarm calls in attempting to interrupt attacks on their cubs by other hyenas.
Apparently, they can also be tamed surprisingly well, although they still do not make good pets for a variety of reasons:
Although easily tamed, spotted hyenas are exceedingly difficult to house train, and can be very destructive; a captive, otherwise perfectly tame, specimen in the Tower of London managed to tear an 8-foot (2.4 m) long plank nailed to its recently repaired enclosure floor with no apparent effort. During the research leading to the composition of his monograph The Spotted Hyena: A Study of Predation and Social Behavior, Hans Kruuk kept a tame hyena he named Solomon. Kruuk found Solomon's company so congenial, he would have kept him, but Solomon had an insatiable taste for "cheese in the bar of the tourist lounge and bacon off the Chief Park Warden's breakfast table," and no door could hold him back, so Solomon was obliged to live out his days in the Edinburgh Zoo.
Make no mistake; hyenas are wild animals, and should be allowed to live as such. But they're fascinating and beautiful animals, too, highly intelligent and social, and whatever bad rap they have is definitely undeserved.
Kevin Richardson with hyenas (photo: Kevin Richardson; licensed under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 license)
("Bacon off the Chief Park Warden's breakfast table". *snrk* ^^)