August 12, 2010

A Hyena on Cape Cod?

A few years ago, Tony and I went with some friends to Great Island in Wellfleet. After parking our cars in the lot, we all headed out to the beach. It took us quite a while to walk there (about 45 minutes), and we didn't see any other people on the way. The beach itself was deserted except for us and one Swedish tourist. For such a popular destination, it's surprising how empty parts of the outer Cape still are.

This lesson was reinforced a couple weeks ago when Tony and I visited Truro, which is next to Wellfleet. One afternoon we walked around the woods in the National Seashore for two hours, and one again we didn't see any other people. None. Not even a Swedish tourist! Some of the beaches in Truro were also empty, and it was the middle of summer. Again, there are some very empty places on the outer Cape!

A view onto Longnook Beach in Truro. Where is everybody?

Given all this emptiness, it's not surprising that weird things happen out there. I've already mentioned the Black Flash who roamed around Provincetown in the mid-20th century, but he's not the only monster who's been seen in that part of the Cape.

In the mid-19th century, Wellfleet was supposedly terrorized by a hyena.

A hyena at night, from a travel blog.

It sounds odd, but here are the facts. A large hairy animal was glimpsed lurking in the woods. Strange pawprints were found in the sand. Domestic animals and chickens were killed at night. An eerie howling was heard echoing across the hills, and women and children were afraid to leave their homes.

Eventually, the Wellfleet men armed themselves and set off in pursuit of the creature. They were unsuccessful at capturing it, but apparently successful in driving it away. The howls grew more distant and infrequent, and finally they ceased completely. The creature never returned.

Was this mysterious animal really a hyena? People who glimpsed it thought it resembled one, but had they ever seen a live hyena or even a photo? Perhaps the whole affair was just hysteria. The only written record of the Wellfleet hyena is The Hyena Hunt, an 1869 poem by local physician Thomas Stone. Stone writes about the hyena hunt mockingly in faux epic language, so clearly he thought the whole thing was some kind of joke.

I'm tempted to say the creature was really just a coyote, which are now as common on the Cape as ticks. But sometimes strange animals show up in places where they're not supposed to. For example, there are plenty of people in Massachusetts who swear they've seen large cats (cougar sized!) on Cape Ann and in the Hockomock Swamp in the southeastern part of the state. In fact, according to Loren Coleman's book Mysterious America, in 1972 the Rehoboth police organized a lion hunt to catch a large animal terrorizing their town. But although tracks were found, the lion eluded the police. It's like the Wellfleet hyena hunt all over again.

Was the Wellfleet creature just a coyote? Was it really a hyena that somehow escaped from a zoo? Was it a mountain lion? Maybe, but maybe it was something conjured up in the empty spaces from the wind, the water and the woods.


Just say no to drugs said...

I heard something last night in SE Mass that sounded like a hyena.

Unknown said...

A friend of mine who moved from Northern maine to Woburn Mass recently just sent me a pic of what could only be a hyena. Also she contacted law enforcement and they said there have been many sightings reported. I have a photo however can't figure out how or if I can post.