Woman in the Mists

Dian Fossey, a young American woman fascinated by Africa, decided in her early twenties to abandon her job in a children’s hospital in order to take on the risky work of a field anthropologist. In doing so, she displayed the force of character that proved both the source of her fame and her eventual undoing.

The great anthropologist Louis Leakey, who interviewed her in 1960, encouraged her to live with the mountain gorillas of central Africa. To her surprise, he told her that she needed to have her appendix removed, a strange request with which she nevertheless complied. In taking up her new career, she defied her parents and friends.

Although at first she seemed well on the way toward a successful career as a scientist in the style of Jane Goodall, her work soon diverged in its dominant emphasis from that of her famous predecessor. She became devoted to the preservation of her object of study, the mountain gorilla, becoming a veritable crusader against hunters and poachers. In her zeal for the welfare of the gorillas, she often threw politeness to the wind, leaving poachers in no doubt of her hatred and contempt for them.

Farley Mowat, himself a noted conservationist, presents this aspect of Dian Fossey’s life with great sympathy. He has studied her diary and correspondence, and his frequent quotes present a vivid picture of the embattled anthropologist. As someone who shares her belief that animals have been ill-served by their supposed human betters, Mowat is able to present her unusually intense views with understanding and empathy. He does not, however, disguise the failings of her virtues. Her intransigent personality, dosed with more than a little bitterness, left her bereft of close personal relationships.

Fossey’s singlemindedness, in the author’s opinion, may have led to her death. Her murder, which occurred at her African camp in December, 1985, remains unsolved, but Mowat speculates that interests opposed to her fight for the gorillas hired a disgruntled poacher to kill her. Mowat devotes little attention to the details of the murder, a subject that interests him far less than the issue of animal preservation. Even those who find the subject of conservation less than compelling will discover in Mowat’s work a vivid account of a distinctive personality.