Dian Fossey was an outstanding American zoologist who spent 18 years living among gorillas. She was the first person to have voluntary contact with a gorilla, when one of them touched her hand. She gained their complete trust and was able to sit amongst them and play with them and their young. Fossey was able to learn a great deal about mountain gorillas during her lifetime. We now know much more about gorilla's behavior and their relationship to humans as a result of her work.
Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco California in 1932. She was the only child of George and Kitty Fossey. She had a difficult childhood. Her father drank heavily which led her parents to divorce when she was only three years old. After the divorce, Dian saw little of her father. When Dian was five her mother remarried a man named Richard Price. Her new stepfather did not treat her nicely.
She was forced to eat dinner in the kitchen with the housekeeper until she was ten. When she decided to attend college she received little support from her stepfather.
Dian Fossey attended San Jose State as a pre-veterinary student and soon changed her major to Occupational Therapy. After Dian Fossey was a trained occupational therapist she found a job at the Kosiar Children's Hospital in Kentucky. Dian was often praised for her ability to communicate with the disabled children in ways others could not. Although she loved her job at the hospital, she longed to see more of the world. This desire led her to borrow against her next three-year's earnings to finance a trip to Africa. During her trip she was particularly interested in the excavations at Oldubia and the mountain gorillas of the Virunga Volcanoes of Central Africa.
In 1963, during her trip to Africa, she met Dr. Louis Leakey. At first Leaky saw Fossey as an irritating tourist. She asked him for a tour of his digs. Even though he was much too busy to be giving tours, he agreed to let her look around for a small fee. Dr. Leakey had just uncovered an important giraffe fossil. Dian was so exited to look at it that she slipped walking down a steep slope. She fell into the excavation, sprained her ankle, and damaged the valuable specimen. To add to that the pain from her ankle caused her to vomit on the giraffe fossil. Even after spraining her ankle, Dian was determined to go on with her plans to see the great apes of the Virunga.
After her trip to Africa, Dian returned to Kentucky where she wrote several articles for the Louisville Courier Journal about her experiences with the gorillas of the Virunga. In 1966, Dr. Leakey stopped at Louisville on a speaking tour. He then met with Dian. He told her that he was looking for someone to take on a long-term study of the mountain gorillas. He asked her if she would be interested. Although Fossey had no formal training, Leakey was more interested in her determination to see the job through to the end than he was in her academic credentials. Fossey enthusiastically agreed to do the study. Leaky suggested jokingly, that she should have her appendix removed a s a precaution since she would be working so far away from medical help. Later he sent her a letter to tell her he wasn't serious about her appendix, but it was too late. Dian already had undergone the surgery.
Fossey left for Africa in late 1966 against her parent's wishes. She spent her first few days with Jane Goodall at Gombe to study her methods. She then went to Nairobi where Leakey helped her obtain the supplies for her jungle camp. Her supplies included two tents and a used Land Rover that had the name "Lily"Ã¯Â¿Â½.
The first few days on the mountain were extremely lonely for Dian. The only two other people there were her tow African employees whose language she did not speak. Her determination motivated her to keep going and she was soon at work tracking the great apes. She first began by sneaking up silently on them and quietly observing. She then changed her approach by announcing her presence to the gorillas by imitating their sounds. After only six months she was able to approach some of the groups as close as thirty feet. As time went on she began to find just the right mix of aggressiveness and aversion necessary to get close to the animals without frightening them. As she was sitting among them one day, a young male she'd named Peanuts came over and touched her. This was an overwhelming experience for Fossey. Soon after, several of the gorillas got used to being in very close contact with her. A young male gorilla named Digit soon became her favorite. He would play with her hair or gently whack her with leaves.
In 1970, Fossey left the gorillas to enroll in Cambridge and get her academic credentials. She didn't like it there at all because it wasn't Africa. She stuck it out because she knew that getting her Ph.D. was necessary to receive the grants to continue her gorilla studies in the field. In 1974, Dian received a Ph.D. in zoology.
In 1976, Fossey became depressed. She had been spending less time in the field and more time doing paperwork. This was partially because she had graduate students working for and observing her. It was also because her health was failing. Her legs were weak and she had hairline fractures on her feet that made walking to have daily contacts with the gorillas impossible. One day she ventured out to find them. When she approached she saw them huddled together against the rain. She decided not to get too close because she wanted them to be wary of poachers. As she was sitting there watching them she felt cold and alone in the dark and misty jungle. Suddenly she felt a comforting arm around her. She looked up to see Digit's warm and gentle brown eyes. He patted her head, and they sat side by side cuddling in the rain.
Poaching was becoming an increasing problem. The poachers soon learned that there was money to be made by selling to Westerners gorilla heads and hands for trophies. Supplying zoos with gorilla babies for exhibition could make more money. Poaching was slowly causing many gorilla deaths. On New Years Day in 1978, the body of Digit was found. He had died trying to defend his family from poachers. Fossey buried his body in a cemetery she built by her camp.
After this she declared war on the poachers. She organized anti-poaching patrols and placed bounties on poachers heads. She killed their cattle if it strayed onto her land and even went as far as burning their houses. She began to require her students to carry guns and many began to claim that she was running a war rather than a camp. This was true, it was a war between herself and the gorillas against the poachers. She began to circulate stories that she was a sorceress who could curse her enemies and there were rumors of her torturing some poachers. Many people in the west began to wonder if maybe she was going insane.
The tension around her camp became so intolerable that Dian was forced to leave Rwanda in 1981 and not return until 1983. During her time away she wrote a book titled, Gorillas in the Mist, now a well-known movie. After returning from her long absence, Dian was found murdered in her cabin on December 26th, 1985. She was buried in the cemetery next to her beloved gorillas. Her killer, probably a poacher, was never found.
I chose to write a biography on Dian Fossey because her life was so fascinating. She was so determined to carry out her life long dreams of working with and bonding with gorillas. I also chose her because gorillas and how closely related they are to humans also fascinates me. Although I could never live among gorillas in Africa, I find it amazing that she did it for 18 years. I think that maybe towards the end the isolation from a "normal"Ã¯Â¿Â½ life, or maybe the memories of her terrible childhood drove her to carry out some rather extreme consequences on the poachers. Despite her actions the last few years of her life, I admire Dian Fossey for overcoming her sad and isolated childhood and carrying through with her life long dream. Today, there is an international Dian Fossey gorilla fund that is dedicated to the conservation and protection of gorillas and their habitat in Africa.
Dian Fossey 1932-1985 No one loved gorillas more"ÃÂ¦ Andrea Tropeano SCED 401 03/23/2001 "Biography of a Scientist"Ã¯Â¿Â½ Works Cited Books Facklam, Margery. Wild Animals, Gentle Women. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Mowat, Farley. Women in the Mists. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1987.
Schott, Jane A. Dian Fossey and the Mountain Gorillas. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 2000.
Online Sources "Fossey, Dian"Ã¯Â¿Â½. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000. 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation.
"Fossey, Dian"Ã¯Â¿Â½. "Fossey, Dian"Ã¯Â¿Â½.