It's a fiendishly muggy afternoon when Bryan Hawn leads a visitor through a two-acre, lushly landscaped estate in the Redland. Dressed in sneakers, khaki cargo shorts, and a tight gray tee, he walks to a chainlink pen where his pet Jake resides. The critter's fuzzy brown tail points up as his 27-year-old master opens the gate.
"He's excited," Hawn explains. "He's on alert." Jake lets out a guttural growl as his owner walks into the cage. "Hi, baby," Hawn coos. "How are you, sweetie?" Jake rubs his wet black snout against Hawn's square chin before pacing in a circle.
"You can't eat your tail, silly," Hawn says playfully before letting his massive, hairy friend out of the pen and into a grassy yard. He chases Jake and then carries him to a small dirt patch, where they roll around some more.
Jake is neither a dog nor any other member of the canine family. He's a predator — a fully grown African spotted hyena, a breed that "kill[s] by running down prey until it becomes exhausted — usually choosing lame or young antelope and zebra," acccording to wildwatch.com.
And the story of this animal and his master is no Lassie. Hawn spent two weeks stripping in Fort Lauderdale to earn the money to buy the vicious creature with deep, icy-black eyes and razor-sharp fangs. He kept it illegally in an apartment for 11 months until it began making a commotion by bouncing off walls. And, after giving away the animal, he was so affected by the experience that he took a job at Zoo Miami. "My relationship with Jake is absolutely priceless," Hawn says. "When you develop a bond with animals, you realize they are just like people."
Hawn grew up in an affluent Atlanta household, the second of four children. His mom Chelle, a chief financial officer for a kids' golf-club manufacturer called Acculength, owns a 10,000-square-foot "Greek revival" mansion she purchased for $1.6 million in 2003, according to an article in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal.
He had his first brush with fame at age 21, when he, his mother, and his siblings appeared on an ABC TV pilot called Vacation Swap, a spinoff of the hit reality series Wife Swap. Cameras followed the Hawn clan as they took a middle-class family on a ski trip to Aspen, where they stayed at the $10,000-a-day Sardy House.
The family owned three dogs throughout Hawn's childhood and teenage years, but he didn't play with them. "They were very boring to me," he says. "I was interested in unique animals."
In elementary school, he was obsessed with exotic creatures, says his mom: "Bryan even made his own encyclopedia, adding a new paragraph for each new animal he researched, from ocean mammals to terrestrial lizards to insects."
When Hawn was in middle school, his interest in animals was replaced by cross country and track and field. "Bryan is 100 percent relentless," his mom admits. "When he gets his mind set on something you don't try to talk him out of it."
In 2003, a year after graduating from high school, Hawn moved to Los Angeles to pursue a singing career. He supported himself working as a personal trainer and an underwear model. A handsome, muscular guy, he isn't shy about using his good looks to get exposure. On January 1, 2007, he posed in his underwear for a website called Hunk du Jour and described his favorite body part as "definitely my ass."
A year later, Hawn migrated to Miami Beach, where he moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the eighth floor of a South Beach building. He continued singing, even winning a talent competition on a show called Minuto de Fama on América TeVé in 2010, the same year he broke up with a boyfriend.
Lonely and hurt, Hawn began thinking of getting a furry companion. "Animals are a great source of unconditional love," he says. "But I didn't want a dog. I wanted something on a huge scale and that would make people's mouths drop open."
On the Internet he discovered animal brokers selling foxes, kangaroos, and anteaters. "It came down to a wolf or a hyena," Hawn says. "The more I thought about it, if I could get a hyena to love me, I could prove to myself that I am a lovable person."
But when he inquired with an animal broker (whom he declined to name) in January last year, there was a glitch. The broker found a private zoo in New Jersey that was selling two baby spotted hyenas for $5,000 each. "I only had a 100 bucks to my name," Hawn asserts. "And I had 14 days to come up with the cash."
That led to a job at the Boardwalk, a gay strip club in Fort Lauderdale. "I worked every single day for two weeks from 5 in the afternoon until 2 in the morning. I averaged about $400 a night."