Born in San Francisco in 1932, Dian Fossey came from a world far removed from the dense jungles of East Africa. She discovered that environment in her thirties and spent the final decades of her life studying the gorillas that lived there. From her groundbreaking primatology work to her mysterious death, here are 11 facts about the scientist behind Gorillas in the Mist.
1. HER LOVE OF ANIMALS BEGAN WITH A PET GOLDFISH.
Though she went on to become one of history’s most famous animal-lovers, Fossey didn’t grow up in a pet-friendly household. The only animal she was allowed to keep as a child was a single goldfish. She loved her fish, but when it died, her parents barred her from getting another animal to replace it. Even a pet hamster offered to her by a classmate was forbidden from entering the house.
2. SHE WAS A PRIZE-WINNING EQUESTRIAN.
Not permitted to keep pets in the home, Fossey nurtured her passion for animals through equestrianism. She received her first horseback-riding lesson at age 6. By the time she reached her teen years, she was advanced enough to merit an invitation to join the riding team at Lowell High School in San Francisco. Her hobby earned her several awards and pushed her to pursue an education in animal husbandry at the University of California, Davis. Even after she’d shifted career aspirations to occupational therapy, Fossey chose to move to Kentucky to be closer to farm life.
3. SHE SPENT HER LIFE SAVINGS ON HER FIRST TRIP TO AFRICA.
Dian Fossey was 31 when she first stepped foot on the continent where she’d complete her most important work. Inspired by a friend’s trip to Africa, she collected her life savings (about $8000), took out a three-year bank loan, and planned a seven-week trip through the wilderness of Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Zimbabwe. On her adventures there she met Louis Leakey, the anthropologist famous for sponsoring the all-woman trio of primatology pioneers (the “trimates”) that included Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas, and eventually Dian Fossey herself. It was also during this period when Fossey saw gorillas in the wild for the first time. She met wildlife photographers Joan and Alan Root and joined them on an expedition to photograph the animals in the Congolese mountains. The vacation wasn’t scientific in nature, but as Fossey later wrote, “The seed was planted in my head, even if unconsciously, that I would someday return to Africa to study the gorillas of the mountains.”
4. SHE PROVED HER DEDICATION WITH AN APPENDECTOMY.
Leakey reconnected with Fossey back in the States in 1966. The anthropologist had spent the last several years supporting his former secretary Jane Goodall in her chimpanzee research, and now he was in search of a candidate to do for gorillas what Goodall had done for chimps. After getting to know Fossey better, he decided she was the right woman for the job. He offered to gather the funding for her trip back to Africa, but before she left she would need to remove her appendix as a precaution. This didn’t scare her off. When Leakey wrote six weeks later to say the surgery wouldn’t be necessary and he had just wanted to make sure she was committed, she was already appendix-less.
5. HER FIRST RESEARCH EXPEDITION ENDED ABRUPTLY.
Fossey returned to the Congo toward the end of 1966—just months before a civil war erupted in the already volatile region. Rebel soldiers captured her at her base camp in July 1967. After spending two weeks in military detainment, she was able to bribe her way out with promises of cash and her Land Rover. The guards agreed to drive her to Uganda, and shortly after they arrived, she had them arrested. After the scare, Fossey was ready to resume her research almost immediately: This time she set up camp in Rwanda, ignoring warnings from the U.S. Embassy.
6. SHE UNCOVERED THE GORILLAS’ TRUE NATURE.
Prior to Fossey’s research, the public viewed gorillas as beasts similar in temperament to King Kong. She quickly disproved the notion that gorillas were bloodthirsty animals that would attack humans when given the chance.
To infiltrate their society, she adopted their habits. Walking on her knuckles and chewing on celery stalks allowed her to gain the apes’ trust. As long as she maintained a nonthreatening profile and made her presence known at all times, she was safe around the gentle behemoths. Today we know that despite their intimidating size, gorillas are some of the least violent members of the great ape family.
7. SHE EARNED A UNIQUE NICKNAME FROM LOCALS.
Dian Fossey spent enough time at her research center in Rwanda to garner a reputation. To the locals she was Nyiramachabelli, a Swahili name that when roughly translated means “the woman who lives alone on the mountain.”
8. SHE USED THE GORILLAS’ NOSES TO TELL THEM APART.
Many of the gorillas Fossey studied were given names, such as Peanut, Rafiki, and Uncle Bert. Fossey used another method to tell her subjects apart: She drew sketches of their noses. Each gorilla has a unique pattern of wrinkles around its nose that makes it easy to identify. These nose prints are the equivalent of fingerprints in humans, but instead of getting up close to study them, Fossey was able to document them from far away using binoculars and a sketchpad.
9. ONE OF HER GORILLAS IS ALIVE TODAY.
Hundreds of gorillas made it into Dian Fossey’s body of research. In 2017, only one specimen from that original pool is still alive. Poppy was born into a group of gorillas on Fossey’s radar in 1976. The researcher documented the animal’s birth and childhood in her journals. Today, at 41, Poppy is the oldest gorilla currently monitored by the Dian Fossey Fund.
10. HER WORK IS THE SUBJECT OF A BOOK, A MOVIE, AND AN OPERA.
In 1983, Fossey published the book that helped make her famous. Gorillas in the Mist is the autobiographical account of her first 13 years in the African jungle and the scientific discoveries she made about the gorillas living there. The title went on to become a bestseller. Five years later, Sigourney Weaver starred as Fossey in a film of the same name. The biopic snagged five Oscar nominations and converted Weaver into a gorilla conservationist.
There’s another dramatization of Fossey’s life that’s not so widely known: In 2006, the Kentucky Opera VISIONS! program staged an opera called Nyiramachabelli—a nod to the researcher’s nickname.
11. HER DEATH REMAINS A MYSTERY.
Next to her groundbreaking gorilla research, Fossey is perhaps best known for her mysterious and tragic murder. On December 27, 1985, she was found dead in her cabin at her Rwandan research camp. The cause of death was a machete blow to the head, but the identity of her assailant remains unknown to this day. (A Rwandan court convicted in absentia her American research assistant, Wayne McGuire, for her murder and sentenced him to death. McGuire, who fled Rwanda before the conviction, has always maintained his innocence.) Fossey was buried in the nearby mountains beside the grave of her favorite gorilla Digit, who had been slaughtered by poachers years earlier. Before she was killed, Fossey wrote one final entry in her diary. It reads:
“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate on the preservation of the future.”
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