The general consensus is that Pokémon are not just super-powered versions of normal animals, plants or objects but are a seperate kingdom of creatures in and of themselves (how else could you explain a whale mating with a kitten, a mongoose with a snake or a ghost with an animated punching bag?). They might not be animals, but when creating these creatures Nintendo clearly had existing animals, items, myths or concepts in mind. Many of these apparent inspirations are very clear: Aerodactyl is a pterosaur, Ponyta is a horse, Slakoth is a sloth. Several are based on more than one relatively obvious influence—Wigglytuff is both a rabbit and a balloon, for example. Others, however, are not quite so obvious. While we may never figure out exactly what the heck is going on with the Nidoran family, and while there's no way to know anything for sure without confirmation from the designers themselves, there are a few puzzling pokeymans that can be guessed at pretty accurately with a closer look. This article aims to explain some of these Pokémon, as well as a few you thought you knew well that might have a few secrets up their sleeves.
Poochyena and Mightyena
Many people claim that Poochyena and Mightyena are not hyenas but wolves, saying that they really don't look anything like hyenas, or that their behavior is more wolf-like. To an extent, this is true—they do have very wolf-like behavior, and do share some physical characteristics with wolves. Most Pokémon are not based on only one creature, item or concept (witness Nidoran), and so it is conceivable that some elements of wolf design exist in these Pokémon. To say that they are not hyenas at all, however, is incorrect. After all, if there was absolutely no hyena influence in their design, why bother including the word "hyena" in their names? They could have just as easily called them "Poochywolf" and "Mightywolf" (or, preferably, names that don't sound as desperately lame and contrived as those two do; I can't be bothered to think of anything more creative right now).
The reason for this confusion is probably because, when they hear the word "hyena", people are picturing this: the spotted hyena (or "laughing hyena"). And no, Poochyena and Mightyena do not look a thing like spotted hyenas. What most people don't realize—or, at least, don't remember—is that a spotted hyena is not the only kind of hyena that exists. There are also striped hyenas, brown hyenas and aardwolves, and a closer look at those (specifically the striped and brown hyenas) shows that Poochyena and Mightyena have a lot more in common with them. Longer tails, more pointed ears, and, most conspicuously, the mane going down Mightyena's back that neither spotted hyenas nor wolves have.
Behavior-wise striped hyenas, brown hyenas and aardwolves are more solitary than social and can be timid compared to other carnivores, so that doesn't match Poochyena and Mightyena's behavior much at all. Spotted hyenas, however, are very social animals, living in clans that are pretty similar to wolf packs. So it's entirely possible that Poochyena and Mightyena borrow elements of their appearance from striped and brown hyenas and their behavior from spotted hyenas—wolves are not needed to explain their design at all, aside from maybe the "pooch" in Poochyena's name. Again, they probably are part wolf, but there would be no reason to attempt to call them hyenas if they could not also be considered part hyena.
Raikou, Entei and Suicune (also Growlithe and Arcanine)
It's been an ongoing debate ever since the release of Pokémon Gold and Silver: what are Raikou, Entei and Suicune supposed to be? The trio has gained several nicknames based on what different groups think the answer is: "legendary dogs" is probably the most common, followed by "legendary cats", and you might also hear things like "lions" or even "gerbils". (The last one is clearly not serious, but yes, I have in fact seen that term once or twice.) "Legendary beasts" is generally considered the correct collective name, as it is generic enough to encompass just about anything one could guess that they are.
Chances are that the legendary beasts, like most Pokémon, are amalgamations of several different creatures and concepts. Raikou's appearance is decidedly more feline and tiger-like than the other two, while Suicune could be considered a cheetah or a greyhound depending on what you prefer. Both of them could also be drawing inspiration from the legendary Japanese creatures Raiju and the kirin, respectively, and you could even make an argument that Suicune is some sort of antelope with paws. Entei looks a lot more ambiguous than the other two—people have called it a lion and a bear, and there's probably some gigantic Pekingese dog somewhere in there as well. As far as anyone can tell they might as well just be indiscriminate hodgepodges like those nutty Nidoran, and all of the above animals probably contributed at least a little to this mysterious trio. There is, however, one creature that covers most of the bases pretty well, and would go some way toward explaining all three legendary beasts instead of just one or two. That creature is the shisa.
The shisa (other names include koma-inu, guardian lion, haetae and chinthe, depending on what country you're in and what the local legend behind it is) is a mythological chimeric creature found in places like China, Japan, Burma and the Koreas. These are the half-lion, half-dog animals—or, on occasion, lions that for whatever reason look a lot like dogs or dogs that look a lot like lions—that can be found sitting in pairs outside of buildings in those countries, one on either side of an entrance. It is believed that they will protect the building and its occupants, driving away evil spirits and keeping good spirits inside. Several of the dog breeds that originated in China and Japan, like the Pekingese and the Shih Tzu, were bred to have qualities that resemble these creatures.
The shisa and their relatives are quite stationary, faithfully sitting by the buildings they are charged with protecting; Raikou, Entei and Suicune, by contrast, spend all of their time racing around the world, literally unable to sit still for any great length of time and not especially attached to any one location. That may be a very noticeable difference, but there are more similarities between the Pokémon and the shisa than just their bizarre half-canine, half-feline appearances. Do not forget that in Gold, Silver and Crystal the legendary beasts do not run around Johto until the player finds them in the basement of Ecruteak's Burned Tower, apparently turned into stone statues. The three beasts are also known for their mighty and terrifying roars (the bane of many a trainer trying to hunt them down and capture them), and roaring is the shisa's favorite method of frightening evil spirits. Some of the shisa variants are also associated with the elements the three beasts represent, such as the haetae's ability to "eat fire" being interpreted as an affinity for water.
I mentioned Growlithe and Arcanine in the title of this section, and several of you are probably wondering why I bothered to do so. Clearly Growlithe and Arcanine are dogs—they are used similarly to our K-9 police units, Growlithe is classified as the "Puppy Pokémon" and Arcanine has the word "canine" right there in its name. Right? Well, they are probably meant to evoke dogs more than anything else (as opposed to the legendary beasts, which seem to be intentionally general and ambiguous), but their conspicuous tiger (big cat!) stripes and Arcanine's leonine build and mane definitely give them some shisa-like qualities.