Hyenas may get new enclosure at zoo

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Getti, a 3-year-old hyena at Hillcrest Park Zoo, had to be separated from Sere his intended mate because when the pair began fighting, keepers feared they might hurt or kill each other.

Sharna Johnson

Stephanie Nutter is on a mission to bring a pair of hyenas back to earth.

In-between working on her archeology thesis and running a non-profit organization, the energetic Eastern New Mexico University graduate student has also taken on a project to create a new enclosure for two hyenas at the Hillcrest Park Zoo.

The biggest objective in her plan? Dirt.

Nutter said more than a year ago she visited the zoo while studying primates for a class project and felt drawn to the hyenas.

Located near the entrance to the park, the pair is housed in a split metal enclosure situated on a concrete pad.

“Being in a more natural environment would be better. I walked in and saw where they were living and thought, we can help,” she said.

“I just think it’d be nice for them to touch dirt and not have to have cement under them.”

Already running a non-profit organization she began in her home-state of Ohio before moving to Portales three years ago, Nutter decided she could raise the money through grants and donations to assist the zoo in upgrading the hyenas to a new pen.

“If there’s somebody that’s willing to help you out like Stephanie, that’s something I’m open too,” he said. “I’m thrilled about giving (the hyenas) more space.”

Recognizing that sometimes the public reacts to the concrete floor in the pen, the enclosure has met with USDA inspection criteria, Curator Mark Yanoti said. Mainly because the cement is a necessity for hyenas, who are natural diggers that live in self-made dens in the wild.

“They’re hard to house,” he said. “They dig like crazy … it’s an expensive venture.”

Coupled with strong jaws and teeth that could snap through a human adult femur, he said the creatures can be destructive and have to have extremely strong welded fencing to contain them.

Even with the strength of the pen they are currently housed in, the zoo has had to have it repaired with new welds after the female hyena Sere began pulling the metal apart.

“We’ve seen one of them tear a big chunk out (of their cage),” he said. “Their jaws are the strongest in the animal kingdom of all land animals.”

And they are naturally reclusive.

“In the wild they have huge dens and tunnels and they sleep during the day and come out at night,” he said.

Very few zoos house hyenas because of the unique challenges they present. Yanoti said the zoo in Abilene, Texas, had a hyena that burrowed so deep they had to extract him from his den, deciding not to house hyenas any more after the experience.

Yanoti said the new pen will have to have a buried concrete pad under about two feet of dirt with strong fencing in order to provide needed security and natural environment.

“I’ve never seen anybody this enthusiastic,” he said. “What ever she wants to do we’ll try and help her out.”

Yanoti said the zoo’s bear exhibit and reptile house were also created through community efforts and donations.

Wednesday, Nutter did a walk through of the park with a contractor to get an idea of what the project will cost — estimated in the area of $80,000 to $100,000.

The zoo has selected an area next to its wolf exhibit where the hyenas would fit in nicely.

Nutter said through her organization Growing Green, she has already begun talking to businesses and has selected grants to apply for, with hope the project could be completed by late summer to early fall.

Growing Green functions by procuring grants and then opening the money up to individuals and small businesses who would otherwise not be able to benefit from grant money, she said.

Once money is obtained, she said local contractors and businesses can apply to be part of the project.

“All the funds we make out here will stay in New Mexico for the zoo … it’s something that donors can be proud of that the money’s being recycled into the community,” she said. “We really believe it’s important to open up those grant fund opportunities to individuals and small businesses.”

Nutter said she has also forged a partnership with the art department at ENMU to create an ongoing program in which art students donate their sculptures for placement throughout the park in exchange for class credit.

The sculptures will be used to enhance the zoo and also to showcase plaques recognizing donors who have contributed $1,000 or more to the project.

Nutter said she is excited and has received a lot of support already.

“Everybody that we’ve called so far, they really seem excited about what we’re doing. I can’t believe how open this community is to helping out with projects like this,” she said.