Berkeley Hills hyena colony faces budget cuts

Tona Melgarejo/Courtesy
Researchers disagree how to best ensure the financial stability of a hyena colony in the Berkeley Hills.

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The financial future of the largest captive group of hyenas in the world, which UC Berkeley researchers have studied for over two decades, looks uncertain as federal funding runs out.

The hyena colony faces an impending expiration of a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2013, and its grant funding from the National Institute of Health — which had been in place since 1985 — expired in 2006. This shortage has led to a split in opinion among the colony’s researchers over how to make up for the lost funds — one option involves selling hyenas to the Oakland Zoo, while another researcher has launched an Internet campaign to raise funds for the colony.

Tona Melgarejo, associate professor of human nutrition and immunology at Kansas State University and involved in the project, launched The Hyena Fund campaign to garner $150,000 in emergency funding by the end of this month to maintain the facility for one year until a permanent endowment can be established for the colony.

Stephen Glickman, a UC Berkeley psychology professor and principal investigator at the facility, suggested a different solution: giving some of the 15 African spotted hyenas to the Oakland Zoo to enable the colony to resolve its budgetary issues in the short run.

“I do not think that there is any disagreement between Tona and me,” he said in an email. “It is a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty choice of words. The hyenas are OK for now, but we do need to raise money.”

The National Science Foundation awarded $854,753 to the colony from 2009 to 2013 as a part of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act federal stimulus funds, according to the foundation’s award abstract for a colony research project on hyena female reproductive development. The funds will expire around June 30, 2013.

The National Institute of Health funded the project since its 1985 beginnings, but the grant was not renewed in 2006. Renate Myles, spokesperson for the institute, said the institute typically gives out grants in five-year periods, but did not specify why the latest grant was not renewed.

On the fund’s website, Melgarejo stresses the importance of hyena research including the study of their powerful immune system, which is resistant to anthrax. The study, “Patterns of Behavioral and Hormonal Development,” seeks to understand the development of male anatomy and poor impulse control among adolescent hyenas.

Melgarejo stresses on the website that this is “a unique ecosystem that cannot be reproduced in any other part of the world… once gone this extraordinary and vibrant center will be lost forever.”