By Michael Barendse, Ed.D.Biographical Highlights
Dian Fossey, 1932-1985, was best known for her observations of the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains region of central Africa. Her work was popularized by the book Gorillas in the Mist, published in 1983, and a movie of the same name released in 1988. She lived with and observed the mountain gorillas on and off for a period of nearly twenty years between 1966 and 1985. Fossey was murdered near her research facility in Rwanda in l985, a case which remains unsolved.
Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco in 1932, where she grew up and attended public school. She was a good student with a developing interest in animals. Eventually, she entered college, enrolling in a pre-veterinary program. Fossey later changed her focus to occupational therapy. She graduated from San Jose State University and took a job in a hospital in Louisville, KY, where she became director of occupational therapy. She stayed at the hospital for seven years. During this time, Fossey developed an interest in mountain gorillas and arranged a trip to Africa to see them in 1963.
While she was in Africa, Fossey met Mary and Louis Leakey, the renowned paleontologists working in the Olduvai Gorge, and told them of her interest in the gorillas. Three years later Leakey came to visit her in Louisville, recruiting her to return to Africa in order to do a study of the mountain gorillas. Leakey believed that understanding primate behavior would be helpful in learning how our earliest human ancestors lived and behaved. To that end he had already established Jane Goodall in Tanzania, studying chimpanzees, and would soon begin to support Birute Galdikas in her work with orangutans in Indonesia. Leakey was Fossey’s mentor as she began her work.
In 1966 Fossey returned to Africa to begin her observation of the mountain gorillas. She initially spent some time with Jane Goodall, learning basic primate research techniques, then she established a camp in Zaire and began her work. However, the political climate of the area was unstable and, at one point, Fossey was arrested. She managed to escape, fleeing across the border to safety in Rwanda.
Once in Rwanda, Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center near the gorilla habitat in the Virunga volcanoes region, and began living with the mountain gorillas. She earned the trust of her subjects by mimicking their behaviors and vocalizations. The gorillas accepted her presence to the point that Fossey actually established relationships with some of them. On some occasions gorillas actually initiated gentle physical contact with her. No one had ever done this before Fossey, and it remains one of her great achievements.
After three years with the gorillas, Fossey went to England, where she entered a doctoral program at Cambridge University. She finished her studies and returned to Karisoke in 1974 with the academic credentials to go with her experience. Fossey went back to the mountains and her gorilla subjects. She became increasingly concerned about the threat of illegal hunting, or poaching, in the gorillas’ territory. Several animals were killed illegally over the next few years.
When “Digit”, one of Fossey’s favorite gorillas was killed in 1977, she established the Digit Fund to raise the money necessary to protect the gorillas. Using the resources provided by the Digit Fund, Fossey hired people, bought equipment, and established anti-poaching patrols in the gorilla habitat. These activities, and Fossey’s pressure on local governments, to protect the gorillas were effective in minimizing the threat of illegal hunting to the gorilla population.
In 1980, Dr. Fossey was appointed to a visiting professor position by Cornell University. She spent her time there working on the book, Gorillas in the Mist, which was published in 1983. The book introduced her work to the public at large and, along with the 1988 movie of the same name, helped to popularize the cause of saving the mountain gorillas. Fossey still spent much of her time at Karisoke overseeing the gorilla study and defending the gorillas against poachers. The anti-poaching activity made enemies in the region. She was attacked and killed by an unknown assailant during the night of December 26, 1985. Fossey is buried among the gorillas who died while she was studying them in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda.
Dian Fossey is important for two reasons. First, her life provides a model of the commitment and determination necessary for an individual to make a difference. Her academic work with the mountain gorillas was very important, but her personal commitment to the gorillas and her advocacy of the value of these creatures will probably have a more lasting impact. If the mountain gorillas survive because of her work to protect them, that will be her greatest achievement.
Fossey is also important because her story, told in the book, Gorillas in the Mist, is interesting and accessible to the public at large. Before her book and the subsequent movie appeared, hardly anyone knew anything about the mountain gorillas, or the fact that they are endangered. The publicity surrounding Fossey has made millions of people aware of these issues, making the protection of the gorillas somewhat easier.
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Fossey’s work was supported by elements of the philanthropic sector from the beginning. The Leaky Foundation (http://www.leakyfoundation.org) provided initial funding for the Karisoke Research Center and Fossey’s early work. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, formerly The Digit Fund, (http://www.gorillafund.org) continues to support the work begun by Fossey, in addition to working for the long term protection of the gorillas.
Key Related Ideas
- Advocacy: The act of supporting an idea, a group, or a cause.
- Animal Welfare: The compassion and respect due animals as living, responsive beings. Animals are entitled to kind and respectful treatment at the hands of humans, and this is not to be left to the compassionate impulses of humans, but is an entitlement that must be protected under the law.
- Animal Rights: The idea that animals have certain inherent rights, including the right to exist without human interference. (http://www.ltg.org/papers/index.asp?bpio=277)
- Preservation: Refers to the idea that habitat and creatures should be allowed to exist free from human disturbance. (http://allcreatures.org/cah)
Important People Related to the Topic
- Birute Galdakis: Dr. Galdakis runs a study of orangutans in Indonesia which was also initiated by Louis Leaky, and uses methodology very similar to that of the Fossey study.
- Louis Leaky: Leaky was a highly regarded paleontologist who recruited Fossey, Galdakis, and Goodall to do the primate studies for which they are known. The Leaky Foundation provided initial support for these studies.
- Jane Goodall: Jane Goodall is another of Leaky’s recruits to the field of primate research. Her work focused on chimpanzee behavior. Goodall served as a mentor to Fossey at the beginning of her career in Africa. Goodall is also an advocate for habitat preservation and the right of animals to live freely in the wild. Her organization, the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation, continues this work.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, (http://www.gorillafund.org), currently supports research on the mountain gorillas as well as attempts to protect them.
- The Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation, (http://www.janegoodall.org), supports chimpanzee research and efforts to protect their habitat. The organization is also interested in the plight of chimpanzees involved in research programs of various types.
- The International Primate Protection League, (http://www.ippl.org), works to combat illegal trade in primates world wide.
- The Leakey Foundation, (http://www.leakeyfoundation.org) has provided support for primate research for many years. The site provides information about the projects supported by the foundation, and links to those projects.
Related Web Sites
- The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International: http://gorillafund.org.
- The Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation: http://janegoodall.org.
- The International Primate Protection League: http://www.ippl.org
- The Leakey Foundation: http://leakeyfoundation.org.
- The Orangutan Foundation International: http://www.orangutan.org. This website is a good source of information about the work of Birute Gadakis, and about orangutans in general.
Bibliography and Internet Sources
About Dian Fossey. http://www.gorillafund.org/dian_fossey.
Freedman, Suzanne. Dian Fossey: Befriending the Gorillas. New York: Steck-Vaughn, 1997. ISBN9780817244057.
Hayes, Harold T.P. The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Montgomery, Sy. Working with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Gadakis. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. ISBN 0395515971.
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