Dian Fossey (January 16, 1932 – c. December 26, 1985) was an American zoologist who undertook an extensive study of gorilla groups over a period of 18 years. Called one of the foremost primatologists in the world while she was alive, Fossey, along with Jane Goodall and Birutė Galdikas, were the so-called Trimates, a group of three prominent researchers on primates (Fossey on gorillas; Goodall on chimpanzees; and Galdikas on orangutans) sent by Leakey to study great apes in their natural environments.
Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, California to George E. Fossey III, an insurance agent, and Kathryn "Kitty" (Kidd) Fossey, a fashion model. Her parents divorced when Dian was aged 6. Her mother remarried the following year, to businessman Richard Price.Dian’s stepfather, Richard Price, never treated Dian as his own child. He would not allow Dian to sit at the dining room table with him or Dian’s mother during dinner meals. A man adhering to strict discipline, Richard Price offered Dian little to no emotional support. Struggling with personal insecurity, Dian turned to animals as a way to gain acceptance. Her love for animals began with her first pet goldfish and continued throughout her entire life. At age six, she began horse riding, earning a letter from her school; by her graduation in 1954, Fossey had established herself as an equestrienne.
Educated at Lowell High School, following the guidance of her stepfather she enrolled in a business course at the College of Marin. However, spending her summer on a ranch in Montana at age 19 rekindled her love of animals, and she enrolled in a pre-veterinarycourse in biology at the University of California, Davis. In defiance to her stepfather’s wishes that she attend a business school, Dian wanted to spend her professional life working with animals. As a consequence, Dian’s parents failed to give her any substantial amount of financial support throughout her adult life. She supported herself by working as a clerk at White Front (a department store), doing other clerking and laboratory work, and labouring as a machinist in a factory.
Although Fossey had always been an exemplary student, she had difficulties with basic sciences including chemistry and physics, and failed her second year of the program. She transferred to San Jose State College to study occupational therapy, receiving her bachelor's degree in 1954. Initially following her college major, Fossey began a career in occupational therapy. She interned at various hospitals in California and worked with tuberculosis patients. Fossey was originally a prizewinning equestrian, which drew her to Kentucky in 1955, and a year later took a job as an occupational therapist at the Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital where her shy and reserved personality allowed her to work well with the children.
Fossey lived on a farm and worked with the livestock on a daily basis. While there she experienced an inclusive family atmosphere that had been missing for most of her life, through the Henry family who owned the farm. During her free time she would pursue her love of horses. In 1963 she took a leave of absence to travel to Africa for seven weeks. In 1966 she quit her job once Louis Leakey confirmed that she would receive funding for her research with the Mountain Gorillas. In 1963 she borrowed $8,000 (one year's salary), and went on a seven-week visit to Africa. The final two sites for her visit were Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (the archeological site of Louis and Mary Leakey); and Mt. Mikeno in Congo, where in 1959, American zoologist George Schaller had carried out a yearlong pioneering study of the mountain gorilla. At Olduvai Gorge, Fossey met Leakey and his wife while they were examining the area for hominid fossils. Leakey talked to Fossey about the work of Jane Goodall and the importance of long-term research of the great apes. The couple agreed to allow Fossey and Alexander to camp behind their own camp, and it was during these few days that Fossey first encountered wild mountain gorillas. After staying with friends in Rhodesia, Fossey returned home to Louisville to repay her loans.
Three years after the original safari, Leakey suggested that Fossey could undertake a long-term study of the gorillas in the same manner as Jane Goodall had with chimpanzees in Tanzania. After studying Swahili and auditing a class on primatology (the scientific study of primates). On the way to the Congo, Fossey visited the Gombe Stream Research Centre to meet Goodall and observe her research methods with chimpanzees. Fossey began her field study at Kabara, in the Congo in early 1967. Fossey identified three distinct groups in her study area, but could not get close to them. She eventually found that mimicking their actions and making grunting sounds assured them, together with submissive behaviour and eating of the local celery plant. She later attributed her success with habituating gorillas to her experience working as an occupational therapist with autistic children.
On September 24, 1967, Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center, aremote rainforest camp nestled in Ruhengeri province in the saddle of two volcanoes. Established 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) up Mount Visoke, the defined study area covered 25 square kilometres (9.7 sq mi). She became known by locals as Nyirmachabelli, roughly translated as "The woman who lives alone on the mountain." Many research students left after not being able to handle the cold, dark, and extremely muddy conditions around Karisoke on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, where paths usually had to be cut through six-foot-tall grass with a machete. Through the Digit Fund, Fossey financed patrols to destroy poachers' traps in the Karisoke study area. In four months in 1979, the Fossey patrol consisting of four African staffers destroyed 987 poachers' traps in the research area's vicinity. She viewed the holding of animals in "prison" (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical. Fossey was discovered murdered in the bedroom of her cabin in Virunga Mountains, Rwanda, in late December 1985, roughly 2 metres (7 ft) away from a hole that her assailant(s) had apparently cut in the wall of the cabin.
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