Dian Fossey was an American female ethologist born on 16th January 1932 who studied gorillas. She completed an extended study of mountain gorillas, observing them daily for years in the mountain forests of Rwanda. Initially encouraged to work there by famous paleontologist Louis Leakey, her work is somewhat similar to Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees. Although successful in educating the public about the gentle nature of the mountain gorilla and raising awareness of their potential extinction, Fossey’s own life ended in tragedy. Nevertheless, her love for animals, her determination, intellectual curiosity, and courage make Dian Fossey unforgettable.
Dian Fossey’s parents separated when she was young because of her father’s drinking and problems with the law. Her mother remarried and forbade Dian contact with him, although he tried to be in touch with her many times. Her stepfather, Richard Price, held a strict, disciplinary approach to child rearing. Dian was not allowed to eat at the table with her mother and stepfather until she was ten years old, when he thought she would be able to respect the manners necessary at the table.
Dian grew up in San Francisco, California, attending Lowell High School. Although she was interested in animals from an early age, her stepfather forbade her to keep pets. At 19, Dian’s love affair with animals blossomed when she worked as a ranch hand in Montana.
She originally studied veterinary medicine at the University of California at Davis, but had difficulty with the physical sciences such as chemistry and physics. Dian transferred to San Jose State University and earned her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy in 1954.
She then accepted a job as the director of occupational therapy at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, where she worked with poor country children and lived in a run down cottage on a farm. In Louisville, she became closely involved with an Irish priest, Father Raymond, who led her to convert to Roman Catholicism.
In Louisville, she also met Franz Forester, a wealthy Rhodesian with whom she developed a close relationship, which continued sporadically throughout her life. He offered her a trip to Africa. Although she did not accept his invitation, Dian was fascinated with the thought of a place where animals could roam free, and began saving money to visit there herself. She read numerous books and articles to prepare for her trip, including The Year of the Gorilla by zoologist, George Schaller. This was the beginning of her interest in the rare mountain gorilla.
In 1963, Dian had finally saved and borrowed sufficient funds to make her trip to Africa. She was in many ways an unlikely candidate to do research in the wilds of Africa. A life-long sufferer from allergies, she brought all the allergy medications possible to help her while there.
In Africa, her first meeting with Louis Leakey was memorable. He was in the midst of important work on a giraffe fossil at the Olduvai Gorge archaeological site, too busy to entertain a tourist. Somehow, he was convinced to take Dian’s fourteen shillings to show her around. She managed to fall into the pit, sprain her ankle, damage the fossil, and vomit on it. From this inauspicious beginning she later became Leakey’s second researcher to pioneer primate studies in their natural environment. Two weeks later, on her bad foot, she was scrambling up a 10,000-foot volcano for her first contact with the mountain gorilla.
After her trip, she returned to Kentucky and wrote several articles for the Louisville Courier-Journal about her experiences with the gorillas of the Virunga. When Leakey visited Louisville in 1966 on a speaking tour, he arranged for her to return to Africa and intern with Jane Goodall in Gombe, Tanzania.
In 1967, Fossey started her research on mountain gorillas on the Congo side of the Virunga Mountains. However, she was captured by soldiers. After her escape, she then established a research center in a remote rainforest camp nestled in the Rwanda side of the mountains between two volcanoes, Karisimbi and Visoke, putting these two names together to call it “Karisoke.” She obtained no permit, nor told any official of her camp and research on the gorillas.
Although the gorillas in Rwanda were wary of humans, Fossey was patient and was accepted into their lives. She became very close emotionally as well as physically to these creatures, giving them names in the same manner Jane Goodall did with the chimpanzees she observed.
She is the first known person to be voluntarily contacted by a mountain gorilla, as documented when a gorilla she named “Peanuts” touched her hand .
Her supporters once again convinced her to leave Africa and accept a three-year job teaching and writing at Cornell University in 1979. There she wrote the book, Gorillas in the Mist, for which she would be most remembered.
Fossey returned to Africa in 1982, in ill health, but her gorillas were facing extinction and she could not abandon them. She faced serious difficulties and was found brutally murdered in the bedroom of her cabin on December 26, 1985, presumably by native poachers. Later evidence, however, possibly implicated Protais Zigiranyirazo, the former Governor of the Ruhengeri province in Rwanda, brother-in-law of the assassinated Rwandan president, and a leader of the genocide in 1994.
Dian Fossey is interred at a site in Rwanda that she herself had constructed for her dead gorilla friends. Her gravestone reads “No one loved gorillas more.”
Fossey credibly defended the case for animal consciousness in a time when this was completely discounted. Her rigorous study and notes, combined with her keen analytical skill, changed the way people look at these animals forever.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DFGFI) continues to manage the Karisoke Research Center’s programs. These include training and maintaining tracking and anti-poaching patrols, monitoring and protecting the mountain gorillas residing in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, and providing public information about the wild mountain gorilla.