HARAR, Ethiopia | Morgeta Olemaria whooped and giggled as he tossed slabs of raw goat meat out of the basket in his lap. About a dozen wild hyenas surrounded him, each anxious to snap up the next scrap.
The hyenas — large doglike creatures with bone-crushing sharp teeth — danced as their names were called. “It is the duty of my family,” Mr. Olemaria said after a feeding one night, while the hyenas settled down for an after-dinner nap.
Normally scavengers living off of animal carcasses, hyenas can turn vicious and attack livestock and people. Five years ago, hyenas in this remote, ancient city killed two children.
But in Harar, hyenas are considered an integral part of society. They rid the city of garbage and “devils,” predict the future and are said to protect the people. And if they are not treated well, they will seek revenge, locals say.
Hararis say the nearby town of Kembolcha lives in fear of hyenas. When some farmers tried to poison Kembolcha hyenas, the animals took their revenge on their human neighbors’ families, killing animals and three children.
But Mr. Olemaria was at ease with the beasts. And as they gathered for their meal on the wide dirt road, children and women with colorful bundles on their heads skittered past the hyenas, barely glancing at the animals.
For about 25 years, men like Mr. Olemaria have been feeding hyenas on the outskirts of the 1,000-year-old walled Old City of Harar by hand nightly. They take a small fee from tourists who light the scene with the headlights of taxis. But when the tourists don’t appear, the men still feed the animals. They say if they do not, Harari livestock and children will be in danger.
“The reason the hyenas don’t eat my cattle, cows and goats is because we take care of them,” said Youseff Mume Saleh, a farmer who feeds a large family of hyenas every night in his front yard.
Mr. Saleh coos the animals’ names as he calls them over to rip slabs of meat off a stick in his mouth or from his hand: Chaltu, Bote, Bin-bin Derartu and Willy.
Mr. Saleh said the animals bring news from Europe or other parts of Africa. When the news is bad, the hyenas cry.
And while this claim may seem far-fetched in some parts of the world, in Harar, hyenas are fortune-tellers who predict largess, tragedies and war.
Drums or shouts invite hyenas to massive public celebrations of the Islamic new year in this historically Muslim city. Led by an all-white “Hyena King,” the animals take part in a yearly ritual that reveals the fate of the city.
A thick porridge made of corn and sorghum is laid out, and the hyenas are invited to dine. According to Mohammad Hajji Ibrahim, a sheik who hosts one of the new year/hyena-feeding celebrations, the hyenas’ next move portends three possible outcomes.
If the hyenas eat half of the food, the coming year will be prosperous. If they eat all of the porridge, locals can expect lean times and a bad crop. If they refuse to eat any of the porridge, disaster is coming.
Mr. Ibrihim said the hyenas last refused the porridge about 20 years ago. After the doomful new year’s celebration, war broke out in the hills and on the streets. The fighting ended with the ousting to the communist government by the current ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
“All the time, people were wondering: What’s going to happen?” said Mr. Ibrihim, waving his hands as he sat in his garden chewing khat, a leafy, mild stimulant with his remaining teeth. “They prayed a lot. And then a new government came.”
On the other side of Harar, atop a lush hill said to be the spot where the porridge tradition began around 800 years ago, there is a similar but slightly competing tradition overseen by another sheik and his wife, Kadiga Ali.
The hyenas refused their porridge only five years ago, said Ms. Ali, the year two children were killed in hyena attacks. “When they did not eat the porridge, it was a big problem between the people and the hyenas,” she said. “They ate the cows and the children.”
But most Hararis would not consider harming the hyenas. Besides their historical and spiritual connection to the animals, it is illegal to kill hyenas and can land the offender in prison for as many as seven years.
Hararis also depend on hyenas to clean the city. At night, the animals prowl the streets, devouring garbage. They enter the Old City through drainage holes that some say were purposely built to be large enough to let the hyenas squeeze in.
For the hyena men, however, their personal attachment to the animals goes beyond the practical, or even the spiritual. They say they have lived peacefully with hyenas for hundreds of years and rely on the animals to protect the remote city. Hyenas, they say, are their family.
“My father taught me how to feed them,” said Mr. Saleh, as he watched the animals mill around his yard, searching for leftovers. “If I die, my son will take care of the hyenas.”