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Who is Dian Fossey?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Dian Fossey is an American zoologist who is famous for her work with gorillas in Rwanda. Her career was unfortunately cut short when she was murdered in 1985, in circumstances which have yet to be resolved. Several foundations and organizations carry on the memory of Dian Fossey in their conservation work, including The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. She is considered one of “Leakey's Angels,” a group of noted women researchers who worked in Africa with great apes.

She was born in 1932 in San Francisco, and from an early age, she had an interest in zoology and veterinary science. She struggled with the coursework, however, ultimately becoming an occupational therapist in the 1960s. However, Fossey was never really happy for this work, and she began to be drawn to Africa and the work of Louis Leakey, a paleontologist who made a number of notable discoveries. In the 1960s, she went to Leakey with the intent of getting a job working with gorillas, and by 1967, she was working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, later moving to Rwanda in response to civil unrest.

Fossey studied the techniques of Jane Goodall, a noted chimpanzee researcher and fellow Angel. Dian Fossey wanted to explore the natural lifestyle of gorillas, but to do so, she had to get the animals accustomed to her. She modeled her fieldwork style on Goodall's, establishing a connection with the gorillas so that they felt comfortable around her. She also broke down many misconceptions about gorillas, showing that they could be loving and gentle, and that instances of gorilla violence were probably linked to self-defense, not an inherently violent nature.

As a conservationist, Dian Fossey was controversial. She was an active opponent of keeping gorillas in zoos and research facilities, and she pushed for more protections of gorillas. Unlike many conservationists, Fossey refused to support or promote tourism, arguing that it harmed the animals more than it helped them. She also clashed repeatedly with poachers, and was the victim of violent threats.

On 26 December, 1985, Fossey was found dead in her cabin with a severe head wound. While some people suggested that she had been killed by poachers, others argued that poachers probably would have murdered her in the forest, rather than in her camp, and that she may have been killed because of her radical conservationist views. Whatever the circumstances of her death were, Dian Fossey was buried with her gorilla friends, in a graveyard she had established for the bodies of animals killed by poachers.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By JessicaLynn — On Feb 19, 2012

I remember reading about Dian Fossey when I was in school. I always thought it was really admirable that she worked against keeping gorillas in zoos or doing research on them. I also admire the fact that she didn't promote tourism.

I think for a conservationist, it would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and promote certain things because others do. I'm sure it took a lot of courage for Dian Fossey to take the opposite stance.

By KaBoom — On Feb 19, 2012

@Monika - She definitely was controversial. I'm pretty sure the reason why they never figured out who killed her is because it could have been so many different people. I know several different writers have attempted a Dian Fossey biography to try to make more sense out of the details of her life.

I've been meaning to read a biography on her for awhile, and I think when I do, it will be Woman in the Mist. This biography is based on Fossey's writings, so I think it probably provides a more balanced portrayal of her life.

It could be tempting to either portray Fossey as some kind of saint who protected the gorillas, or some kind of racist that didn't get along with anyone. I'm sure the truth is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

By Monika — On Feb 18, 2012

Dian Fossey definitely was a controversial figure, for more reasons than just her conservationist views. I remember reading somewhere that she had said at one point that she was only trying to get gorillas to be comfortable around white people, because black Africans were the poachers.

However, her supporters denied that she was a racist and pointed out the fact that she was banned in South Africa because she was so critical of apartheid. Obviously that's not something someone who was really a racist would do, but I guess we'll never really know whether she was racist or not.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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