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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


A Google doodle yesterday told me that January 16th was Dian Fossey's birthday, and after a short trip around the web to brush up on her bio, I thought I'd add her to our list of famous January Crones. Mythical Crones often come with non-human companions; the old woman and her cat, burned together at the stake, are a tragic part of Herstory.

Born in 1932, Fossey was only three when her father, a heavy drinker, left the family. A few years later her mother remarried, but the new stepfather was rigid and unloving. Until she was ten, Dian took all of her meals in the kitchen with the housekeeper. Early on she knew she wanted to be a vet--animals simply engaged her more than people--and she was already a gifted equestrian. Her stepfather opposed her plan, but Dian plowed ahead anyway, working different low wage jobs to earn tuition. Ultimately, the mathematics portion of the curriculum defeated her, and she ended taking a degree in occupational therapy.

She took a job as director at the Kosair Crippled Children's Hospital in Kentucky, where she worked with disabled and autistic children, finding connections others could not with the later. After work, she lived on a farm, in a time of real happiness. Here she was closer to the rhythm dictated by the needs of the animals she cared for and where she could ride her beloved horses.

And here I'll end the biography, as the rest is better known, especially her life in Africa, where she was first an observer, and then a friend and guardian to a family of shy, gentle, endangered mountain gorillas. Before yesterday, I had never known much about her childhood, but it doesn't take a psychologist to understand reasons for the trajectory of Dian Fossey's life. She'd had a hard childhood, abandoned by both father and then emotionally by a mother who cared more for a new husband than for her own child. Looking for a family who would not disappoint, Dian arrived in Africa more than open to the idea of a non-human one. 

"I feel more comfortable with gorillas than people. I can anticipate what a gorilla's going to do, and they are purely motivated." ~~ Dian Fossey

Gorilla families will fight to the death to protect their infants, so when hunters take a baby, they usually kill all the adults, too. The killing of Digit, a young male gorilla whom she'd loved since his infancy, as well as other members of his family during such a raid, sent her off on crusade--against the colluding park rangers, against the villagers who cut trees and grazed cattle inside the park, and against the poachers, who could make as much as $200,000 for the head of a gorilla. A middle-aged woman alone in a volcanic jungle, almost single-handedly, she tried increasingly desperate and extra-legal measures to protect her adopted family and their wild home.

 “The man who kills the animals today is the man who kills the people who get in his way tomorrow.”

Since her unsolved murder, in 1985, which might have been politically motivated, some, (predictably, a writer at The Wall Street Journal) have done their best to disparage at Dian's reputation and belittle her. "Racist" and "alcoholic" are among the epithets, but I wonder who among us whose family has been murdered and whose land has been invaded and ruined, would not be full of despair, rage and a passionate desire for revenge upon those responsible? 

The mountain gorillas remain in danger of extinction, more so than in Fossey's day, when she, out of her own pocket, paid to protect them from poachers and corrupt politicians. She raised awareness of the plight of these close primate cousins, whose DNA is 98% similar to ours and whose social organization, individuality, and emotions so much mirror our own. 

“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”   

The Dian Fossey Gorilla fund:

~~Juliet Waldron
Historical Novels:



  1. She is still inspiring. She and Jane Goodall were truly pioneers of animal study and preservation. It is so true - our young lives affect us deeply. To think she may have felt closer to a gorilla than her step-father is strange but understandable! As she said - they are more predictable.

  2. I have Gorillas in the Mist on my shelf. Excellent post.

  3. Thanks for putting a much deserved spotlight on the unusual and accomplished woman. I cannot imagine going into the jungle and doing what she did. To say I am awed by her is an understatement at least. But then, it's always those extraordinary people who show us all the untracked paths in the world . And inspire us to do more with our lives. Thanks Juliet.