Girl-illa in the Mist
by Amelia Diehl
Dian Fossey feared heights and had no training in animal behavior. And yet, she spent her life climbing treacherously high terrain to follow and study apes—determined to protect them from extinction and abuse.
Born in California in 1932, Dian loved animals, and in 1950, she enrolled in pre-veterinary school. Later, she changed her major and became an occupational therapist instead.
She went on to work at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Kentucky, but she longed to visit Africa. In 1963, she borrowed money and traveled there, hoping to see mountain gorillas and visit Olduvai Gorge, a famous archeological site.
When Dian arrived at Olduvai, Dr. Louis Leakey, world-famous paleoanthropologist, was not happy to see another American tourist. He was even less pleased when she fell into the excavation site, badly sprained her ankle, broke a rare giraffe fossil, and then threw up on it.
Dian didn’t let the fall ruin her trip, though. Two weeks later, she made a painful climb up a 10,000-foot volcano, determined to see the great apes. The moment she saw them, she fell in love.
After she returned to Kentucky, she couldn’t forget about the gorillas. She met Dr. Leakey again at a conference in Louisville, and her passion for the gorillas convinced him she was the woman to study these animals. So after a few months of training with chimpanzee specialist, Jane Goodall, Dian headed to Africa.
In 1967, with support from several foundations, she founded Karisoke Research Camp in Rwanda and began her studies. For months, she secretly watched the gorillas. Then she imitated their sounds. In 1970, she had her first big breakthrough—one of the male gorillas touched her hand. It was the first recorded friendly contact between a human and a gorilla.
Soon, Dian earned the gorillas’ trust. She gave them names like Peanuts, Macho, and Digit. One rainy day when Dian was feeling sad, she ventured out to observe the gorillas. As she sat quietly watching them, Digit, her favorite gorilla, appeared and hugged and cuddled with her.
When poachers learned that people would pay money for the gorillas’ heads and paws, they began hunting and trapping gorillas. Dian tore down the poachers’ camps and tried to scare them away. Then one day in 1978, poachers killed Digit. Six months later, they killed Uncle Bert, another of Dian’s favorite gorillas. Dian declared war on poachers, organizing patrols and setting their camps on fire.
Dian returned to the U.S. and got her Ph.D. in zoology in 1980. She worked at Cambridge University for awhile and began writing her book, but she eventually returned to the gorillas she loved and continued to fight for them.
On the day after Christmas in 1985, Dian was murdered, and the crime was never solved. She was buried near Digit and Uncle Bert. Her tombstone reads, “Dian Fossey, 1932 – 1985. No one loved gorillas more…”.
Dian’s book, Gorillas in the Mist, was published in 1983 and became a major motion picture in 1987, raising awareness about gorillas and the dangers they faced. Her work continues today through the Fossey Fund. It raises money to keep alive her dream of protecting and studying Africa’s gorillas.
Occupational therapist: someone who helps people cope with illnesses or disabilities in their daily lives.
© 2004 New Moon® Publishing, New Moon®: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams, Duluth MN.
Content last reviewed May 15, 2008
Page last updated October 31, 2013