Friday, August 10, 2018

The Hyena Scientist by Sy Montgomery, photographs by Nic Bishop

I have been waiting for this book forever! I have always been interested in hyenas, partly because they are just cool and partly from reading Tamora Pierce's Emperor Mage. This book celebrates the weirdness and awesomeness that is hyenas in a way that only Scientists in the Field can.

The main scientist featured in the book is Kay Holekamp, a zoologist from the University of Michigan, who has been studying hyenas for over 30 years. Montgomery plunges right into the story, acknowledging and discrediting the many legends and negative press around hyenas and then using some of Kay's quotes and her own observation to introduce readers to this amazing animal.

Interspersed with an account of the fascinating biology, habits, and behavior of hyenas is the story of Kay Holekamp's studies and the people who are involved. Kay's story follows her from an internship at the Saint Louis zoo, travels around the world with her husband, divorce, a doctorate, and finally taking over the hyena study in Masai Mara. She acknowledges the work done by Laurence Frank, but also is open about the issues with the way field study was done in his time and how she changed the methods used. Kay reflects on the changes she's seen, both in the landscape, the hyenas, and in her own life. She married her assistant and partner, who works in neuroscience in the states, she teaches at the university in the school year and works in the hyena study in the summer; and her new assistant is her old supervisor from the zoo!

Montgomery profiles everyone involved in the camp, from the graduate students to the staff who keep the camp running. One of the most interesting profiles is of a local, Benson Ole Pion, who started working in the camp as an assistant cook but became interested in the hyenas, eventually became an assistant researcher, and is now preparing to move his family to the states to further his education and become more involved in the hyena studies.

The animals themselves are not neglected, with chapters on their complicated behavior, hierarchy, and how they differ from other mammalian species. There are exciting accounts of targeting and testing hyenas, the aftermath of a flood in the camp, and funny accounts of taking a shower in the camp.

The book ends with a series of quick facts about spotted hyenas, bibliography and online resources, and index.

Verdict: A strong addition to the Scientists in the Field series, this is a great book to give kids interested in animals and science. It will inspire them to think about their future careers as well as foster diversity. Strongly recommended.

ISBN: 9780544635111; Published May 2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Purchased for the library

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