Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, California, in 1932.
Even though she loved animals and wanted to become a veterinarian, she received a college degree in occupational therapy.
She started a career as a therapist, but her mind was still on animals, particularly the rare mountain gorillas of central Africa.
In 1963, she went on a seven week African safari that included a visit with Louis Leakey at his Olduvai Gorge dig site in Tanzania. Goodall’s study of chimps was proving very valuable, so Leakey wanted to set up a similar research study of mountain gorillas.
After meeting Fossey, he decided she was the woman for the job.
By 1967, Fossey was in the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda observing mountain gorillas.
She discovered that they are not the ferocious predators many believed. To gain acceptance by the gorillas, Fossey imitated their habits and sounds.
She found them to be a peaceful species that live in stable family units like humans. They are mainly vegetarians, although they will eat insects also.
Fossey found that each family has a dominant male who will fight fiercely to protect all the infants in his group. She also observed group members caring for each other when they were sick or injured.
Like Goodall, Fossey found herself fighting the human activities that threaten the mountain gorillas with extinction.
Their habitats are disappearing, and poachers kill many adults for trophies and trap baby gorillas to sell to zoos.
Fossey’s efforts to protect the mountain gorillas made her an enemy of the poachers. In 1985, she was found murdered in her Karisoke cabin, probably another victim of the poachers.
Since 1972, researchers at Stanford University have taught a sign language to a female gorilla named Koko. Koko has learned hundreds of signs and uses them to communicate with humans.