The History of Dian Fossey for Kids

Imagine you are hiking through the thick green mountains of Rwanda, a country deep in the heart of Africa.  It is wet and dark in the dense leaves, plants and vines and you and your team use machetes, which are large knives, to cut through the foliage as you make your way to your destination.  There is no path for you to follow, so you use animal tracks and signs.  Finally you cut through to an open area and stop in your tracks. Everyone goes quiet. Gorillas. Dozens of them lying around and frolicking in the mist. They are exactly what you have been looking for.

Tonight we are going to learn about Dian Fossey — an American woman who loved animals and grew up to become a famous zoologist, or someone who studies animal behavior.

Dian Fossey was born in San Francisco, California in 1932.  She grew up with her mother and stepfather and developed a strong love of animals at a young age.  She enjoyed horseback riding as a kid and teenager and she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. A veterinarian is a doctor for animals.

Dian went to college in California and started studying veterinary courses, but decided to change and study occupational therapy instead.  Occupational therapy is a type of therapy that helps people who are injured or unwell to learn to use their bodies again.

After she finished college, Dian worked at a hospital in California.  She was offered a job as the director of a children’s hospital’s occupational department in Kentucky, so she moved there in 1955. In Kentucky, Dian lived on a farm and spent a lot of her free time with the farm animals.   

Dian had decided that she wanted to travel and see other parts of the world. And she really wanted to visit Africa.  So she saved up her money and in 1963, she traveled to Africa for the first time.  While she was there, she traveled to many countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the Congo.  

In Africa Dian met a number of other scientists and researchers.  She was inspired by the work they were doing in different areas, including paleoanthropology, or the study of human fossils, and wildlife photography.  The wildlife photographers that she met were working on a movie about African gorillas.  They took Dian along on one of their trips to find the gorillas in their natural habitat.  A habitat is an animal’s natural home or environment.

When Dian first saw the gorillas on that trip, she became instantly in love with them.  She liked that they had individual personalities and were shy.  She wanted to return again to see the gorillas.

Dian went back home to Kentucky and met others who were interested in gorillas. She met a professor named Louis Leakey and together they made plans to conduct a long-term study on the gorillas of the Rwandan mountains.  

In order to conduct the research, Dian needed to live in Rwanda and so she moved there and spent her time living mostly in the mountains with the gorillas and watching them. She lived like this for four years until a war broke out and Diana had to leave to escape the war.

Dian continued to study gorillas and worked on getting a doctorate degree based on her research at Cambridge University in England.

In 1983, Dian published a book about her research and her experience living with the gorillas.  It was called Gorillas in the Mist and it became a best-selling book. The book was even made into a popular movie in 1988.

Unfortunately there were people who did not like Dian and the work she was doing.  Many people at the time tried to hunt gorillas and kill them, since they could get a lot of money for the gorillas bodies and parts.  Dian spoke out against these hunters or “poachers” and because of this many of these hunters did not like her.  They did not want her message of protecting the gorillas to be spread. 

Sadly, on December 26, 1985, Fossey was found dead at her Rwandan forest camp. She had been killed by poachers.  However, no one was ever caught or put in in jail for what happened.

Dian’s work with gorillas continues through an international research fund called the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.  The Fund continues to operate and has expanded to other areas of Africa.  The Fund’s goal is to protect mountain gorillas and other endangered species in the gorillas’ habitats.

Dian Fossey is considered the leading researcher on the behavior of mountain gorillas.  She worked hard throughout her life to try to protect these animals from extinction and from hunters and poachers who wanted to kill them.  Dian’s love of the gorillas helped her to see them as highly intelligent individual animals.  And her passion for helping to save them made the gorillas lives better. 

From Dian, we can learn about the power of an individual to make a difference in the lives of other beings, including animals.  Sometimes one person’s interests and efforts can help save an entire species of animal.  She showed bravery in travelling to Africa and facing the dangers of the jungles and poachers who disagreed with her.  And her strength and bravery continue to inspire others. 

Is there a type of animal that you love?  Are there ways that you can learn more about these animals? Are there ways that you can get involved in caring for them?  Like Dian, you can make a difference in the lives of animals that you love.