Dian Fossey. Photo: National Geographic.
Dian Fossey worked as a primatologist, naturalist, zoologist and anthropologist. She is best known for her research, scientific discoveries and preservation efforts related to the mountain gorilla species in Rwanda. Tragically, Fossey was murdered at only 53 years old, but her legacy and scientific contributions continue to carry significance.
From Goldfish to Gorillas
Fossey’s affinity toward animals started with her first pet: a goldfish. Born in 1932, Fossey grew up in San Francisco with her mother and stepfather. At age six Fossey began horseback riding; she later earned a varsity letter on her high school riding team. After spending her first college summer working on a dude ranch, Fossey quickly changed course from pursuing a business degree to focusing on pre-veterinary studies. However, after struggling with a few physics and chemistry courses, Fossey landed with an Occupational Therapy degree from San Jose State in 1954. Her knowledge of, and experience in, occupational therapy later proved beneficial to Fossey when she discovered her true calling of working with endangered mountain gorillas.
In Awe of Africa
Fossey began her occupational career working with tuberculosis patients in California hospitals. After about a year, she left for Kentucky where she worked at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital. During her time in Kentucky, Fossey lived on a farm and regularly tended to animals. It was at this time that a friend of Fossey’s returned from Africa and shared photos and travel stories with her. From this point on, Fossey was determined to visit Africa herself.
In 1963, she took out a bank loan for her first 7-day trip to Africa, where she visited Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Congo and more. During her trip, she met Alan and Joan Root, who were both wildlife photographers working on a photo documentary about gorillas at the time. The couple led Fossey to her first encounter with the largest of all primates.
“It was their individuality combined with the shyness of their behavior that remained the most captivating impression of this first encounter with the greatest of the great apes,” she wrote in her bestselling, autobiographical book, Gorillas in the Mist, that was published in 1983 and later became a movie. “I left Kabara with reluctance but with never a doubt that I would, somehow, return to learn more about the gorillas of the misted mountains." Fossey was struck by the gorillas at this encounter, and as she reports in her book, this fascination with the primates remained throughout the rest of her life.
According to her novel she met Leaky and his wife, first, in Africa in 1963 at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, which is considered one of the richest paleoanthropologist sites in the world. He then came to Louisville in 1966 as part of a lecture tour and interviewed her for the position of “gorilla girl” after reading articles she had published about gorillas since her return from Africa.The very first trip for study was financed via Leighton Wilkie, an industrialist who had a family foundation that supported anthropological and other scientific field studies.
Achievements and Active Conservation Efforts
During her career, Fossey made discoveries about gorillas’ social relationships and hierarchies, their vocal and diet patterns and more. Utilizing her occupational therapy background, Fossey was able to habituate four groups of gorillas by mimicking their gestures and movements. Fossey also actively fought poachers to protect gorillas. Fossey believed in active preservation and relied on active conservation methods such as wearing masks to scare poachers and spray painting cattle to discourage herders from bringing them to the park.
In 1967, Fossey established Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in order to study endangered mountain gorillas. A year later, National Geographic Society photographer Bob Campbell was sent to capture the work Fossey was doing. When his photos were published, the world got the chance to see what Fossey always saw: gorillas were not horrific beasts, they were “gentle giants” whose very existence bordered endangerment.
From 1970 to 1974, Fossey traveled back and forth between Cambridge and Africa so that she could obtain her PhD at Cambridge University. In 1980, Fossey became a visiting professor at Cornell University and was considered the world’s primary authority on mountain gorillas’ behavior and physiology.
Death and Aftermath
Fossey once again returned to Rwanda to continue her work with gorillas. Tragically, this was cut short. On December 27, 1985, Fossey’s body was found after having been struck twice in the head with a machete. She was buried behind her cabin, next to her favorite gorilla Digit, who had been killed by poachers. Fossey’s murder was never solved, but her research center and the work she did to protect and educate people about endangered mountain gorillas lives on today.
In fact, Fossey’s last diary entry before her murder sums up who she was as a person and her vision of life, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
By Lisa Zimmermann