Woman Making History #37: Dian Fossey


Dian FosseyDian Fossey was AMAZING.

Fossey was born in California in 1932. She obtained a degree in occupational therapy from San Jose State College, but was interested in animals from a very early age and previously considered veterinary training. After her graduation, she worked for several years at a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1963, Fossey took a six-week trip to Africa. While in Africa, she met Dr. Louis Leakey, who explained to her the importance of observing great apes (Leakey was also a mentor to Jane Goodall). By 1966, Fossey was working for Leakey, doing her own research and observations on mountain gorillas in the Republic of Congo (then Zaire). She was supported by the National Geographic Society. In 1967, the political situation in the Congo forced her to move her operation to Rwanda.

Fossey's goals, to observe the gorillas' social behaviors, ecology, and demography, required her to be able to identify individual gorillas. In order to do this, she had to live among them for long enough for them to become comfortable with her. By 1970, her efforts were rewarded when a male gorilla touched her hand. This was the first friendly contact between humans and gorillas ever on record.

In 1976, Fossey obtained a belated Ph.D. from Cambridge University. By this time, she had been doing her gorilla research for ten years. In 1980, she accepted a faculty position at Cornell University, which allowed her to write her much-acclaimed book about her work, Gorillas in the Mist.

By the time Fossey's book was published in 1983, the population of mountain gorillas was down to about 250. Digit, a gorilla to whom Fossey was particularly attached, had earlier been killed by poachers, inspiring Fossey to speak often and eloquently about the need to protect the endangered gorilla population from human interference and particularly from poaching. In addition to her anti-poaching work, Fossey worked and spoke against "jailing" animals in zoos, arguing that several animals are often killed when one animal is captured to be taken to a zoo, that animals sometimes do not survive capture and transportation, and that animals in captivity have lower life spans and breeding rates than they do in the wild.

After her book's publication, Fossey returned to her camp in Rwanda to continue to continue her protection and anti-poaching campaign. In 1985, she was murdered in her cabin. Her murderers have never been found.

Today, the population of mountain gorillas is slowing growing, due in large part to the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the non-profit Fossey set up in the 1970s.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund
About: Women's History

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