Hyena on South Beach

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."

He eventually collected $5,286, enough for the hyena and his gas expenses for the 48-hour round trip to New Jersey. "I brought two loaves of bread, some jelly, and water because I had no money for food," he says.

Florida law prohibits ownership of wild animals such as hyenas and tigers without a license. And even license holders are barred from keeping exotic creatures in an apartment. The animals must stay in a facility equipped to care for them.

So when he arrived at the zoo, Hawn says, he lied to owner Bridget Sipp about which state he lived in. "I made up an address in Alabama, where there are no laws prohibiting people from having exotic animals like lions or monkeys," Hawn notes, adding he didn't present any proof of residency.

Sipp died in a house fire this past April. An employee named Rebecca told New Times: "I do recall a gentleman buying a baby hyena a year ago. But I couldn't tell you more about the sale."

Hawn was shown two 6-week-old hyenas: a male and a female. He bonded with the male. "Jake approached me first," he says. "When he looked up at me, I knew he was the one."

Soon, though, the hyena went wild in Hawn's small South Beach apartment. "The first three months were hell," he recalls. "He was shitting all over the place, and he would scream all night long." Hawn couldn't have company either. "I had a friend over one time, when Jake starts sniffing his shoe. Before I knew it, Jake sank his teeth into my friend's shoe. Thankfully, Jake didn't break the skin. I didn't have anyone over my apartment after that."

He told neighbors he was housebreaking a dog he had rescued. "Bryan was always telling us not to worry," his mom remembers. "He was all about nurturing his hyena."

During that time, Hawn fed Jake baby formula through a bottle. Once the hyena began showing his spots, Hawn fed it raw chicken with Tabasco sauce. The duo would watch Finding Nemo together. Hawn also wrestled with Jake for at least an hour a day, even tugging on the animal's ears with his teeth. "In the wild, hyenas constantly wrestle with each other to establish dominance," Hawn says. "That is how I established myself as the alpha. I never lost a wrestling match; otherwise Jake would never respect me."

Hawn even documented Jake's growth with his cell-phone camera and posted the video footage on YouTube.

But 11 months after picking up Jake, Hawn realized his feral pal had to go. Whenever he let the hyena out of its cage, it would run headfirst into the walls. "At that point, Jake was pushing 100 pounds," Hawn says.

He speaks of the hyena as if it were a person. "I would tell him the neighbors were going to freak out because he wasn't supposed to be there."

Hawn says he called three zoos in Florida, but none would adopt Jake. "They are expensive animals to care for," he affirms. In February, he tracked down Mario Tabraue at the Zoological Wildlife Foundation in the Redland. The animal keeper, who cares for 200-plus exotic animals from emus to monkeys, was wary. "I didn't want him or myself to get in trouble," Tabraue says. "So I got him to agree to turn himself in through the game commission's amnesty program."

Transporting the animal wasn't easy. Jake broke Hawn's left arm and bit the other while fighting his master's attempts to get him into a cage. "I had so much adrenalin I didn't feel the pain till much later," Hawn says. "I was just relieved I got him out of the apartment with no one seeing me."

When the pair arrived at Tabraue's place, a wildlife officer was waiting for Hawn. Criminal misdemeanor charges were later dropped. Technically, Hawn gave up ownership of Jake to Tabraue. But the animal keeper has allowed Hawn to visit whenever he wants. "Knowing that I would still be a part of his life made it easier to leave him," Hawn concedes. "The bond I have with this wild animal is absolutely priceless. The love Jake and I share is unbreakable."

Now Hawn is cashing in on his hyena experience, hawking a $20 e-book about raising Jake. Last week he started a new gig at Zoo Miami showing off camels, giraffes, and rhinos to visitors. Tabraue helped him land an interview with a zoo manager. "She saw my Jake videos," Hawn says, "and she was extremely impressed with the way I took care of him."

He says he has found his calling: "I'm hoping I'll get the opportunity to work in the amphitheater doing shows with the animals."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.