But I found myself re-learning the story I'd thought I knew since watching Gorillas in the Mist so many years ago. Yes, Dian Fossey was a bad ass scientist who stood her ground to protect her beloved gorillas, and for her efforts she was horribly murdered.
Closer examination of the stories told about her during her life and after her death reveal a more complex person -- both heroic and flawed. How to celebrate the one while being honest about the other? I find it's best to start at the beginning.
“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.” Dian Fossey’s last journal entry before she was murdered.Dian Fossey funded her first trip to Africa from her own savings and a bank loan. She grew up in a relatively wealthy family in San Francisco, but her step-father ran a very strict household where no pets were allowed and where Dian had little emotional comfort or support from her parents. It's no wonder she dreamed of and saved money for visiting other places and working with animals. Or that she left as soon as she could.
She attended college, but after she dropped out of her business program to pursue a degree in veterinarian sciences from UC Davis, her parents withdrew their support. Undaunted, she worked to pay her own way. Sadly, her performance in some of the tougher science classes forced her to change her plans, and she eventually graduated with a degree from San Jose State in occupational therapy. For a time, she worked with patients recovering from tuberculosis, but was eager to leave California as quickly as possible. When an opportunity to move to Louisville, Kentucky, presented itself, she jumped at it. There, as Director of Occupational Therapy at Kosair Children’s Hospital, she worked with autistic children and began to make a life for herself.
Her introduction to Africa
Intrigued by stories told by friends about their trip to Africa (one she regretted she could not join because of financial reasons), she was determined to make a trip of her own. She saved nearly a year's salary and took out a personal loan, and in 1963 she took a seven-week trip through Kenya, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rhodesia. It was on this trip that she met Louis and Mary Leakey, who told her about the work Jane Goodall was doing and their goal of establishing long-term research of all the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans). Later, she stayed at a small hotel in Uganda run by Walter Baumgartel, a prominent advocate for gorilla conservation. There she met Joan and Alan Root, Kenyan wildlife photographers who invited her to camp near them in hopes of spotting wild mountain gorillas. She did. And it was love at first sight.
Dian was hooked. She dutifully returned to Louisville to continue working and pay off her loans, but she was continually dreaming of Africa and the gorillas. She published three articles in the newspaper about her trip. And when Louis Leakey spoke at a conference in Louisville, she sought him out and tried to convince him that she was the ideal candidate for his gorilla research project. It worked. Three years later, in 1966, she set off for a trip to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) to study gorillas for three years. In 1967, political unrest in Zaire forced her to moved to Rwanda, where she established her research camp in the rainforest nestled between two volcanoes -- perfect habitation for mountain gorillas, although not necessarily perfect for Dian, who suffered from bouts of asthma and bronchitis.
Also, while the gorillas in Zaire had been protected and lived a life relatively free of harm from humans, and thus were somewhat indifferent to them, the gorillas in Rwanda had long been harassed by poachers and ranchers, and wanted nothing to do with her. It wasn't until she'd taken charge of two young gorillas who'd been captured to be sent to a zoo in Europe. By spending weeks caring for Coco and Pucker Puss she began to earn their trust, and eventually was able to take them out into the forest for observation. Thus, she was able to learn some basic vocalizations and behavior, which eventually led to her ability to gain the trust of the wild gorillas. It was as though they had provided her with an introductory lesson in gorilla-ese.
Her work as a scientist and activist
Between trips to Africa to study, she earned her PhD from Cambridge University, lectured at Cornell University, and wrote -- scientific papers based on her findings, as well as her bestselling book Gorillas in the Mist. While she may be best known to the general public for the latter, it was her work on the former that cemented her role as the world's leading authority on the behavior and physiology of mountain gorillas, likely aided by her previous study of occupational therapy and work with autistic children.
Among her most celebrated discoveries are the knowledge of how female gorillas move from group to group, how group hierarchies operate, the relationships between groups, diet, and vocalization.
As she grew to know and care for her gorilla subjects, she was also exposed to their harsh reality of the constant threat of death from poachers and others who somehow stood to gain from the death or removal of these animals. She and her assistants were known to track the trackers and on several occasions were instrumental in stopping the deaths of gorillas and even leading to the arrests of known poachers. She herself likely felt threatened.
Over the years, this almost certainly influenced her own beliefs about how best to protect the gorillas -- and here's where the controversy comes in. She was opposed to many of the solutions presented by local officials -- chiefly wildlife tourism, holding fast to her belief that human contact would have detrimental impacts on the gorillas both from a biological standpoint (gorillas can catch human diseases), as well as a from a sociological standpoint (as an interference with their natural behavior).
To further complicate matters for herself, as Fossey and her team encountered more poachers, they often took matters into their own hands. They harassed poachers, cut down their traps, and were even known to capture and sometimes even threaten them. It wasclear that she did not trust the Rwandan government to protect the gorillas, so she and her team began what they called "active conservation." In a way, this is in line with the actions of many radical environmentalists of the era -- think Earth First! and Judi Bari.
There have been many who have accused Fossey of colonial racism in her dealings with Africans -- locals and those she worked with. She herself often mentioned how much she preferred the company of gorillas to humans, and it has been suggested that she treated the locals with disrespect and even outright abuse, poachers or not.
She wasn't much kinder to the research students who came to work with her. Many left disgruntled, and some were outright hostile. In fact, after her death, there were rumors that it could have as easily been a former student as a poacher who killed her.
Her legacy and its effects
She is still regarded as the most well-known primatologist working with gorillas. No doubt her tragic death and the film starring Sigourney Weaver have added to her celebrity. Even after learning more about her faults, I can still confidently celebrate the good that she has done to improve the science of studying and understanding wild animals, and especially primates.
I do, however, wonder about the lingering effects on the safety of wild gorillas that her behavior may have had. There has been a lull in gorilla poaching in Rwanda as the country has stepped up its enforcement of existing laws, and has even introduced more protections. But poaching is a localized problem, and when communities feel threatened, they may resort to old practices. Hunger is often more powerful than the threat of arrest. By alienating the local population rather than engaging them in the importance of her work, she may have actually set the movement to protect these animals back in the long run.
I suppose that western environmentalists have had to repeatedly learn the lesson that it is often more important to engage and support local efforts over their own idealized goals. I hope that it is beginning to sink in. I know that in many of the classes I took when pursuing my own degree in Environmental Studies we discussed the importance of not just local buy-in, but actually stepping back and letting the local population, whether they be in Rwanda, Guatemala, or Ohio, to set the course, and for the environmentalists to support and follow their lead.
Still... as a woman who took it upon herself to travel halfway around the world to live in the jungle and study gorillas when pretty much no one else would, and then defend them with her very life? That's pretty kick ass! For that alone I will celebrate her birth and her life today.
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