|Harar, Ethiopia – October 2017|
I don't harbor some kind of death wish, although such a desire might explain why I decided to feed a wild hyena from my mouth, placing my face within easy striking distance of one of the fiercest, most dangerous predators on Earth. Possessing incredibly powerful jaws, a hyena can even crush and digest elephant bones. Human attacks aren't common but do happen, especially at night.
I traveled to Harar, Ethiopia, to meet Abbas Yusuf, better known as the "Hyena Man." Abbas has been feeding the animals for 13 years, a tradition passed down to him by his father.
The practice first started in Harar in the 1960s when a farmer gave hyenas pieces of meat to keep them away from his livestock.
However, Harar's unique bond with, and acceptance of, the normally feared creatures stretches back eons. Legend has it that two centuries ago during a famine hungry hyenas kept eating citizens, so Muslim saints met with the leaders of the hyenas to offer a deal – bowls of porridge in exchange for stopping the attacks.
The truce is commemorated each year with a gift to the hyenas of porridge mixed with butter and goat meat.
But hyenas are welcome in this walled, medieval city 365 days a year.
They're allowed to freely roam the
labyrinth of streets after dark
to clean up food scraps left behind from the plethora of markets and shops located throughout
the overcrowded city.
And for tourists there's always the option of a more intimate hyena encounter.
The most frightening aspect of the experience was turning my back on the hyenas, something that safari guides say a human should never do with any wild animal. As Abbas wrapped meat around the stick in my mouth, I could feel the beasts hovering around me, waiting impatiently to devour the morsel dangling inches from my face.
Has anyone ever been attacked? I thought. What if a hyena goes for my neck, instead? Or my stomach or my head?
It was too late to change my mind. I feared what might happen if the hungry hyena didn't get his snack.
I rotated slowly, gazing at jaws whose power is only surpassed by crocodiles. Fear welled up inside me. Please don't bite off my face, I thought.
I trembled as the hyena snapped, claiming its prize.
I repivoted to Abbas, who wrapped another hyena treat on the stick, before I could object.
Are you kidding me?
Once more, I anxiously cozied up to an animal that can take down prey as big as an adult hippo.
I'd had enough.
"How do I get out of here?" I asked the Hyena Man, with visions of the creatures sinking their razor-sharp teeth into my flesh the moment I cut off their food supply. "Just get up slowly," Abbas replied.
After I was out of striking range, I relaxed, vowing to never again do something so foolish ... although I still have never ...