By Mary Papenfuss
San Francisco (Reuters) - Some of the wildlife at the University of California at Berkeley is about to disappear as the last members of the world’s only captive hyena colony decamp to new homes due to a lack of funds, university officials said on Tuesday.
The last 13 animals in what had once been a group of 54 will be moved to U.S. zoos or sanctuaries from their current home in the hills above campus.
Researchers have become “extremely attached” to the animals, which are often stereotyped as obnoxious scavengers, said George Bentley, integrative biology professor and director of the field station housing the animals.
“They’re comical, charismatic, social, and very intelligent animals,” he said. “They’re fantastic to watch and incredibly intriguing.”
Hyenas in the colony were used as models for characters in the Disney movie "The Lion King."
The colony grew from cubs first brought from Kenya’s Maasai Mara region in 1985. Scientists have studied their social structure and aggression, striking vocalizations and the females' unusual anatomy.
The clitoris of the female hyena resembles male genitalia, leading many scientists to theorize that the animals were hermaphrodites. This was disproved by integrative biology professor Stephen Glickman, who had helped bottle-feed the first batch of Berkeley's hyena cubs.
But Glickman did find that the females give birth, urinate, and mate through their “pseudo penis,” and dominate males.
Justin Goodman, director of laboratory investigation for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, hailed the decision to move the hyenas.
“Any time lab animals are released is a time to celebrate," Goodman said.
The colony had been supported by research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and later the National Science Foundation.
When funding wasn't renewed nearly two years ago, the university stepped in on a temporary basis, but no further research money came through, said Robert Price, Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor for research. The university notified the operation to wind down two months ago.
Efforts are being made to keep mates and other small groups of attached animals together. A few may move to Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, said Bentley.
Bentley said there is still much to learn about the animals, which are immune to the infectious disease anthrax.
"We don’t know why," Bentley said. "Now we’re losing the opportunity to find out."
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Matt Driskill)