The Hyena Scientist Reviews

The Hyena Scientist
(Scientists in the Field Series)
by Sy Montgomery and Nic Bishop
HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN 978-0544635111

The Hyena Scientist

“A practiced and proficient team returns to the African plains to visit a field camp in Masai Mara, Kenya, where zoologist Kay Holekamp has been studying spotted hyenas for 30 years. This surprisingly engaging title introduces a species whose bad reputation is nearly universal. Holekamp disagrees. Her study of eight generations of hyenas has revealed the spotted hyena to be “an unexpectedly brave, smart, and extremely social species” as well as the “most formidable carnivore in Africa.” During their 10-day visit, Montgomery and Bishop go with the researchers for morning and evening observations, watch one sedate a young male with a dart gun so all can take measurements and specimens, see a skirmish in a war between rival factions of the large Talek West hyena clan, and, during a downpour, when flood threatens, help evacuate precious specimens and equipment. Montgomery’s graceful prose draws readers into the experience with clear explanations and vivid description. Bishop’s striking photographs show off the doglike hyenas’ furry cuteness. He includes close-ups of cubs at play and rest, researchers at work, and adult hyenas interacting with one another, as well as tent scenes, other wildlife, and the always-impressive scenery. Readers may be inspired by the stories of the scientist’s diverse team of assistants: a retired medical social worker, U.S. graduate students, and a young Kenyan who hopes to study in the U.S. An appealing, elegantly designed introduction to another much-maligned species.”

star— Kirkus, starred review

Has there ever been a creature more maligned than the hyena? From folklore to Disney, hyenas are often reduced to a cackling, scavenging villain, digging up corpses and stealing from mightier predators. But how much of this reputation is fairly earned? According to zoologist Kay Holekamp, very little.

This latest installment in the acclaimed Scientists in the Field series, penned by National Book Award finalist Montgomery, heads to Kenya’s Masai Mara reserve, where Kay has studied the spotted hyena for three decades. Hyenas are unusual among mammals in that they’re entirely led by females; appropriate, then, that Kay has led groundbreaking zoological research in a field dominated by men. Her findings are changing not just public opinion about hyenas (they’re affectionate, social animals and accomplished hunters—lions steal from them more than the other way around) but also the way hyenas are viewed by scientists. From their physiology to their social structure, hyenas break a lot of scientific rules and scientists can glean a lot by studying them.

Montgomery covers hyena behavior, field work processes, and daily life in the African bush, but she also profiles Kay and her research team, all of whom have their own reasons for being interested in hyenas. Similarly, Bishop’s photos capture the research base, Kenyan fauna, and, of course, the hyenas themselves. A fascinating, informative, and inclusive window into a feared and misunderstood species.

star— Booklist, starred review

The hyena has a less-than-stellar reputation—something that Montgomery aims to remedy in the newest addition to the Scientists in the Field series. Readers join zoologist Kay Holekamp as she tracks and studies spotted hyenas in Kenya along with a multigenerational team of biologists. The narrative unfolds with all the intrigue of a detective story; as the team radio tracks hyenas in land cruisers, Montgomery recounts their observations as if they are unfolding in the moment: “Kay recognizes this hyena immediately from his spot pattern. It’s Decimeter’s younger brother, year-old Kilometer.” Montgomery shares her own riveting experiences as part of the team, including helping to dart and collect samples from a hyena: “I realize with alarm that a hyena is waking up in my lap,” she recalls. Photo-filled and perceptive, the narrative provides a window into the lives of these fascinating animals, as well as the individuals who devote themselves to their study.

— Publishers Weekly

Poor hyenas; even The Lion King doesn’t give them any respect. Fortunately, there’s zoologist Kay Holekamp, who has for decades led a team that’s researching these fascinating animals on a wildlife reserve in Kenya. Holekamp’s research has revealed that hyenas are more often direct predators than scavengers and that their fascinating hierarchy puts females (the larger and stronger of the animals) at the top and males even below puppies.

It doesn’t get more classic Scientists in the Field than this: Sy Montgomery with Nic Bishop on camera trekking along through the wilds with a pack of enthusiastic researchers on the track of a pack of slightly less enthusiastic animals. The book shines the spotlight on various members of the research team in informative page-long sidebars; particularly interesting is the participation of a woman who gave Holekamp her volunteer start as a teenager and a young local who started as support staff and moved up to researcher.

For readers looking for adventure, there’s plenty of hyena-based event (the team witnesses a rare clan war) and research-team event (rising flood waters force the team to relocate to higher ground, where the author discovers that the comforting heavy breathing she heard outside her tent was that of a mother hippo). Photos are stunning, with some amazing closeups as well as sweeping vistas. Montgomery shamelessly sells the spotted hyena as delightful and misunderstood, so animal-loving readers will be pleased to take up its cause.

star— The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Starred review

In another strong contribution to the Scientists in the Field series, Montgomery focuses on the much-maligned hyena. Although often portrayed as creatures of horror and “conniving, cowardly” scavengers, this volume demonstrates that hyenas are in fact quite brave, social, and smart; they are also a keystone species in which females dominate.

Montgomery and Bishop accompany zoologist Kay Holekamp and her team of research assistants studying the behaviors of large clans of spotted hyenas in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, using careful and continuous observation to understand and document hyena interactions. Montgomery tells much of the story moment by moment, providing a deeply detailed account of life in the field, from data collection to living in tents to what happens when rain impedes research.

Bishop’s outstanding photographs do much to elevate the reputation of hyenas, capturing pictures of adorable fuzzy babies and parents, as well as action shots of hyenas speeding into battle, their powerful bodies in motion. Interspersed sidebars provide inspiring profiles of the researchers and describe their paths to scientific careers. “Fast facts,” a bibliography, and an index are appended.

— The Horn Book

Consummate science author Montgomery and renowned nature photographer Bishop team up and turn their attention to a small group of scientists working in the Masai Mara wildlife reserve in Kenya studying hyenas. Kay Holekamp, who has been working with animals since her teen years, leads the group of researchers working out of a makeshift camp in the reserve. They spend their days gathering information from several groups of hyenas, including data about diet, social hierarchy, communication, hunting prey, and innumerable other things. Montgomery does an expert job of weaving facts into the explanations of the scientific work being done in the field, thus keeping the attention of readers who are here for the animals. Much of what she shares dispels many the more commonly held misconceptions about hyenas (being scavengers, dirty) and highlights their incredibly complex social structure and ability to communicate with each other in many ways. Because Montgomery and Bishop traveled together to do the research for the book, there is a remarkably personal feel throughout as they become part of the team and participate in all aspects of the work, from spotting to packing up gear, and even cradling a sedated hyena’s head. Bishop’s photographs offer a perfect complement throughout, immersing the reader fully into the world of the hyenas and those studying them. VERDICT A truly strong addition to the series and a worthwhile purchase for most libraries.

— School Library Journal