The first U.S. Google Doodle of 2013 honors Frank Zamboni. Yup, that’s the guy who invented the Zamboni, the ice resurfacing machine used for hockey games and skating rinks. He was born on this date in 1901, and until today I had no idea the invention was named after an actual person! Here at Speaking Up, we’ll take a look at someone I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time: Dian Fossey, born on January 16, 1932.
Fossey is well-known for her work studying gorillas in their natural habitat, and is the subject of the film Gorillas in the Mist. Her dedication to the great apes she studied, her commitment to living in harsh conditions in order to better understand gorillas, and her scientific findings made her one of the most important primatologists in history. Fossey was trained and working as an occupational therapist when, at age 31, a trip to Africa and a visit with Mary and Louis Leakey shifted her passion in another direction. She soon returned to Africa and became a colleague of the Leakeys, setting up various research stations in the mountainous Rwandan Jungle; her work was largely funded by their foundation and by National Geographic. In addition to her fieldwork, Fossey completed a PhD in animal behavior at Cambridge University, taught as a visiting professor at Cornell University, and wrote a bestselling book.
Fossey’s work showed the scientific community and the world that gorillas were complex, highly social creatures, and were worthy of our study, our protection, and our respect. In order to study the social and familial relationships within groups of gorillas and among distinct groups, she essentially lived with and among gorillas for many years. Through thousands of hours of study, Fossey came to recognize individual gorillas and to be accepted as a part of their habitat, allowing her to get close to them rather than observing their lives from a distance. This allowed Fossey to trace complex social relationships and events, and to understand the gorilla diet, acts of aggression, and even vocalization or gorilla “language.” Her legacy also includes The Digit Fund (now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International), a foundation whose mission focuses on ending poaching of endangered mountain gorillas. Fossey started the fund and named it after Digit, her favorite gorilla in the group she was studying at the time, who was killed by poachers as he tried to defend the rest of his group from them.
Fossey was murdered in 1985 in her field cabin in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Her killer was never found. It is suspected that her vocal and active opposition to poaching of wild animals, especially in the area in which she and her research staff lived and worked, made her a target. However, the population of mountain gorillas has increased over time, due to the advocacy and conservation efforts of people like Dian Fossey and those she has inspired. Today, it is believed that 880 mountain gorilla individuals are living and thriving in Africa.