How Dian Fossey found humanity among the gorillas

Today Google pays homage to pioneering, though controversial, gorilla researcher Dian Fossey with a Doodle in her honor.

Today Google honors pioneering gorilla researcher and author of 'Gorillas in the Mist,' Dian Fossey.

Just before mountain gorilla researcher and “Gorillas in the Mist” author Dian Fossey was murdered in her cabin in the Viruga Mountains in Rwanda, she reflected in her journal about life and the future. This was in her last entry:

“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”

Ms. Fossey lived a varied life, with occupations ranging from a prize-winning equestrian, to a children’s occupational therapist, and even a farm hand in Kentucky. When combined, she had a unique skill set that enabled her to both research and serve as an almost-radical advocate for mountain gorillas in Rwanda – contributions that have outlasted her untimely death. Her legacy has been immortalized online with a Google Doodle on what would have been her 82nd birthday.

Fossey was born on January 16, 1932 in San Francisco, the daughter of a fashion model and an insurance agent. However, her parents divorced when she was 6. She grew up without contact with her father, and was not close to her stepfather when her mother remarried.

From an early age, she felt a distinct connection to animals, which led her to pre-veterinary studies at the University of California-Davis. Finding difficulty in her coursework, she transferred to San Jose State to study occupational therapy and worked with children at a hospital in Louisville, Ky. While there, she lived on a small rural farm and tended to livestock. However, she had her sights set on seeing more of the world, and in 1963 she packed up her bags, life savings (about $8,000), and a bank loan, and headed to a seven-week trip through the jungles of central Africa.

While there, she toured preserves and wildlife refuges in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and the Congo, among other areas, and met famed anthropologist couple Mary and Louis Leakey, as well as nature photographers Joan and Alan Root. The Roots brought Fossey along for a trip to photograph gorillas in the mountains of the Congo. The gorillas’ peaceful calm and intense familial bonds instantly captivated Fossey.

"I believe it was at this time the seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains,” she wrote in her memoir, "Gorillas in the Mist".

The opportunity came just three years later after Fossey had paid back her loans and written three articles about her travels for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Mr. Leakey was traveling through the area and encouraged Fossey to apply for research grants from National Geographic and other wildlife funds. She got the money and headed back to Africa in 1966.

During this time, Fossey gained near unprecedented contact with gorillas in their natural habitat, often “knuckle-walking” and chewing on celery to demonstrate she was a part of the group. Her unusual methods gained her acceptance in several gorilla groups, and she was able to log their behavior, debunking myths about gorillas as violent, unpredictable creatures. To the contrary, she found they were largely peaceful and nomadic, with strong familial bonds.

Though she began her research with no training (aside from a two-day crash course in fieldwork from Jane Goodall), she gained a PhD from Cambridge University and did a three-year teaching stint at Cornell University.

But it wasn’t without near insurmountable challenges. There was major political turmoil in the Congo when she first arrived, causing Fossey to uproot and flee to Rwanda to continue her research. There, she set up the Karisoke Research Center and discovered there was an even more dire problem facing gorillas aside from lack of information: poachers. In the largely corrupt Rwandan state, it was easy to bribe park rangers and officials to allow hunters into refuges, and subsequently gorillas were killed in high numbers, both by the poachers and in the melee when the gorillas violently fought to protect their families. 

Fossey fought back against poachers with a vehemence that gave opponents grounds to claim she was mentally unstable. She would set fire to traps and even personally apprehend (and intimidate) poachers – a method she would later dub “active conservation”. She believed zoos to be inhumane and eco-tourism to be disruptive and even dangerous to animals’ natural way of life.

During her research, she became close with a young gorilla she named Digit, who was later killed by poachers. This motivated her to create a nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving gorillas, called the Digit Fund (later renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International) which funded further poaching patrols in wildlife areas, as well as speak out to national publications about the poaching.

Her research and conservation efforts made her a divisive figure in Rwanda, and in 1985 she was found dead in her mountain cabin. To this day the case remains unsolved, though fingers have been pointed at politicians who made money off the lucrative tourism business, research assistants, and poachers sick of her meddling with their trade.

Though Fossey was killed, she was certainly not forgotten. Her best-selling memoir, “Gorillas in the Mist,” was made into a movie three years after her death starring Sigourney Weaver, and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International still exists today.

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