January 16 – Happy Birthday, Dian Fossey

Posted on January 16, 2015

She lived with the apes!

Dian Fossey, who was born on this date in 1932, was such an important primatologist, she was considered one of the Trimates.

Okay, let's define some of those terms.

A primatologist is someone who studies primates: lemurs and their cousins, monkeys, and apes like chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans. In the case of Fossey, she studied gorillas in the African country of Rwanda.

The Trimates are a group of three important and famous researchers on primates: Dian Fossey studying gorillas, Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees, and Birute Galdikas studying orangutans. The anthropologist Louis Leakey encouraged these women to study the great apes in their natural environments.

Dian Fossey was born and raised in California, and she followed her step-father's advice to enroll in a business course at a college near her home in San Francisco. However, she loved-loved-loved animals, so she ended up switching to a pre-veterinary course so that she could work with animals. Her step-father didn't agree with her choice and chose not to support the choice financially. So Fossey worked hard at a variety of jobs while at university, and she ended up flunking out of the program! She had to change majors and colleges again, and she earned a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy in 1954. She interned and worked at occupational therapy at a variety of hospitals in California and Kentucky—and in 1963 she plunked down her life's savings and a year's salary worth of borrowed money in order to visit Africa for seven weeks.

Fossey traveled in Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rhodesia. She met Louis and Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where the Leakeys were looking for early ancestors of humans. Louis Leakey told her about the work of Jane Goodall and explained the importance of long-term research on great apes. A bit later, Fossey was nursing a broken ankle near a photographer couple, and she was privileged to see some wild mountain gorillas. What a thrill!

When Fossey returned home to the U.S., she published three articles in the local newspaper about her visit to Africa. Later, when Leakey was on a lecture tour in the United States, Fossey attended the lecture, reintroduced herself to the anthropologist, and showed him those articles.

It wasn't long before Leakey invited Fossey to study gorillas; he started arranging for funding while she took classes in Swahili and primatology.

How do you do a long-term study of wild mountain gorillas? You have to go where they live, you have to live in a primitive camp, and you have to be very patient. One more thing, Fossey soon realized, is that you have to copy the gorillas to become accepted by them. She copied their gestures, their grunting sounds, and even their diet of the local celery plant. Eventually the gorillas allowed her a closer vantage point with which to study them.

Fossey had started her studies in the Congo, but there was political unrest and violent battles. In 1967 soldiers arrived at Fossey's camp to escort her and her research workers down the mountain. She ended up relocating to Rwanda, where she lived the next 18 years of her life—until she was murdered, probably by someone who was upset by her conservation and anti-poaching efforts.

Celebrate Fossey by learning about mountain gorillas

You might want to learn about the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which Fossey founded. 

Enchanted Learning offers print-outs and quizzes about gorillas, and NationalGeographic Kids offers a slideshow and map. 

Also on this date:

Plan ahead:

Check out my Pinterest pages on:
And here are my Pinterest boards for:

No comments:

Post a Comment