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  • Sara Thompson

Fossey Brought Attention to Gorillas

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Image credit Robert I.M. Campbell, National Geographic.

Dian Fossey was born January 16, 1932. During her short career, she worked extensively helping us understand gorillas in their natural habitats and advocate for their preservation and protection. Her work is akin to what Jane Goodall has done with chimpanzees, and the two were good friends and allies in animal activism.

Fossey was an animal lover her entire life and was an accomplished equestrian. She grew up in California and attended UC-Davis enrolling in the pre-veterinary courses. She worked odd jobs to support herself through school and beyond, not having any financial support from family. She later transferred to San Jose State College and studied occupational therapy, graduating in 1954 with her bachelor’s degree. She would intern at a few hospitals in California before landing a permanent job doing occupational therapy at the Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. Her demeanor helped her work well with children at the hospital. She also grew close to Mary and Michael Henry, who were an administrator and a doctor of the hospital. In her spare time, she would spend time at the Henrys’ farm.

In 1963, Fossey took a life-changing journey to Africa where she met family friends of the Henry’s, Louis and Mary Leakey. On this trip, she encountered her first mountain gorilla and fell in love with them. Several years later, the Leakeys would secure funding for Fossey to set up a camp to study mountain gorillas in the same manner as Goodall was undertaking with chimpanzees. In 1966, Fossey would learn research methods from Goodall and the two became friends. The following year, Fossey was setting up her first camp in the Congo to begin her own studies. She learned that by mimicking their behavior the gorillas tolerated her presence and would leave her alone. However, due to political unrest she was forced to flee the country and would never return. She, along with her colleagues agreed to set up another research site in Rwanda.

The Rwanda site would become the Karisoke Research Center. It took longer for Fossey to acclimate the gorillas of this area to her presence as their only interactions with humans had been from poachers. Her research included gorilla vocalizations, diet, behavior, and their social structures. She would be featured on the cover of National Geographic in 1970, helping to bring more awareness to her work and conservation. Fossey received her PhD from Cambridge University in 1974 and by 1980 was seen as the leading mountain gorilla expert.

Her research and publications brought gorillas in a more positive light, as they had previously been seen as dangerous beasts. She would also make enemies of poachers, often destroying their traps and helping to capture and arrest them. She was sadly found dead in the research center in 1985.

Even though her career was cut short, she left behind a legacy of continued gorilla population growth each year. The foundation she started was renamed to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and remains active, helping to raise money for the work she started. The Karisoke Research Center is also still in operation, although it needed to be moved to a new location.

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