Together with Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas, Dian Fossey was one of the Trimates, a group of three researchers focused on primates. Fossey’s main area of concern was gorillas; Goodall studied chimpanzees; and Galdikas researched about orangutans. All three of them were sent by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study great apes in their natural habitat.
Fossey undertook an extensive study of mountain gorillas in the mountain forests of Rwanda. Her research into gorillas as well as her personal story was detailed in a book she wrote called Gorillas in the Mist which was released in 1983.
On December 26, 1985, Fossey’s slain body was found near her campsite. To this day, the identity of her assailant remains unknown, although it is believed that the poachers she fought against were the ones who killed her.
Fossey was both an interesting and controversial character throughout her life, and here are some facts about her:
1. She Turned To Animals To Deal With Personal Insecurity
Fossey’s parents divorced when she was six years old. Although her mother remarried, her stepfather wasn’t the doting kind. To gain acceptance, Fossey turned to animals. This love for animals (starting with a pet goldfish) continued throughout her life.
2. She Is An Established Equestrian
Fossey began riding horses at the age of six. She was a fairly established rider by the time she finished school in 1954. It was the love of horses that drew her to Kentucky in 1955 where she won prizes for being an equestrian.
3. She Always Wanted To Work With Animals
Fossey’s stepfather urged her to attend business school and for a time, she did what she was told: she enrolled in a business course at the College of Marin. However, her love for animals forced her to defy her stepfather’s wishes. She then enrolled in a pre-veterinary course in biology at the University of California, Davis.
4. She Supported Herself Throughout Her Adult Life
Fossey didn’t receive much financial support from her parents when she dropped out of business school. To pay for school, she worked at several jobs which included being a clerk at White Front, doing laboratory work and working as a machinist in a factory.
5. She Graduated With a Degree In Occupational Therapy
Although she wanted to lead a professional life working with animals, Fossey found basic sciences – such as chemistry and physics – difficult. As such, she failed her program of study and ended up transferring to San Jose State College to take up occupational therapy. She got her bachelor’s degree in 1954.
6. She Worked As An Occupational Therapist
Fossey interned at several hospitals in California and worked with tuberculosis patients. She moved to Kentucky in 1956 to work as an occupational therapist at the Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital. Fossey worked well with children and the hospital and she also developed a close friendship with May White “Gaynee” Henry, secretary to the chief administrator of the hospital and wife of one of the doctors, Michael J. Henry.
7. She Took a Trip To Africa In 1963 Which Sparked Her Interest In Gorillas
The Henry’s once invited Fossey to go on a tour of Africa with them but she had to turn them down because she lacked finances. However, she made this trip a reality in 1963 by borrowing $8,000 and taking out her life savings. Her trip lasted seven weeks and took her to Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rhodesia.
It was during Fossey’s trip to Tanzania where she met Louis Leakey and his wife Mary. Leakey introduced Fossey to the work of Jane Goodall and talked to her about the importance of long-term research on the great apes.
A camping trip in the wilderness of Kenya provided an opportunity for Fossey to encounter wild mountain gorillas. Fossey returned to America after her African trip and it would take three more years for her to return and start her research.
8. She Was Urged By Louis Leakey To Study Mountain Gorillas
Leakey stopped by Louisville as part of a nationwide lecture tour where Fossey met him. He remembered her interest in mountain gorillas and suggested she study them long term in Africa. While waiting for her visa and funding, Fossey studied Swahili and audited a class on primatology. She finally arrived in Nairobi in December 1966.
9. She Started Her Research In Congo
American zoologist George Schaller once carried out a year-long study of mountain gorillas in Congo. In 1967, seven years after Schaller’s study, Fossey began her study. Although she was able to identify three distinct groups, it was difficult to get near them.
However, Fossey found that mimicking the actions of gorillas, making grunting sounds and showing submissive behavior allowed people to get close to them. Fossey wasn’t able to stay long in Congo due to the unrest and rebellion in the region. After speaking with Leakey, it was decided she continue her research in Rwanda.
10. She Became Known As “The Woman Who Lives Alone On The Mountain” In Rwanda
Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center on September 24, 1967. The center’s location was in a remote part of the Ruhengeri province. It took Fossey some time to study the Karisoke gorillas at close distance because they knew humans as poachers.
11. She Was Opposed To Poaching
Poaching has been declared illegal in the national park of the Virunga Volcanoes since the 1920s. However, the law wasn’t strictly enforced by park conservators. As much as she was against it, she was powerless to stop the poaching of young gorillas for export to zoos. For a time, the group of gorillas Fossey was studying weren’t affected by poaching until her favorite, Digit, was killed in 1977.
Digit’s death propelled Fossey to start the Digit Fund to raise money for anti-poaching patrols. The continued rise in deaths of gorillas in Fossey’s group forced her to spend a lot of time preventing poaches and less time on research. Fossey and her staff even became extreme in hunting poachers by setting traps, capturing them, holding their cattle for ransom and burning their camps.
12. She Was Opposed To Tourism
Fossey didn’t support wildlife tourism because gorillas were found to be susceptible to diseases like influenza. She also believed that tourism interfered with the natural wild behavior of gorillas.
Dian Fossey’s Legacy
Before her death, Fossey was recognized as the leading authority on the physiology and behavior of mountain gorillas. Her scientific achievements include gorilla vocalization, hierarchies and social relationships among groups. After her death, the Digit Fund was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and the Karisoke Research Center still continues its work of monitoring and protecting mountain gorillas.