Connecting with the Great Apes: Dian Fossey as Feminine Scientist

Sally Frantzreb

Writer’s comment: As an American Studies major, I created my own emphasis which gave me the freedom to explore any subject related to American culture and society. History and Philosophy of Science 150, Gender and Science, was one of the five classes that comprised my emphasis, Interdisciplinary Analysis of Gender. My interest, therefore, in examining the ways in which gender ascriptions are played out in every academic field was fueled by this course: even something as “soft” as gender can be found in “hard” science. Having a range of paper topics from which to choose, I decided to integrate my knowledge of feminine science, feminist science, and ecofeminism with my personal fascination with the primate researcher Dian Fossey. I genuinely enjoyed researching Fossey’s life and connecting her experiences to my own interest in gender issues. Writing this paper was much more than a fulfillment of a course requirement: it was an analytic journey through my own interests, beliefs, and life tenets.
—Sally Frantzreb

Instructor’s comment: HPS l50, Gender and Science, blends material from the history of women in science, scientific attitudes about sex and gender, and feminist philosophies of science. The suggested paper topics invited students to come to their own understanding of the interplay between history, science, and feminist philosophy by critically exploring a philosophical problem through the life of a particular scientist, the history of a scientific field, or a debate about sex difference. Sally Frantzreb chose to grapple with the fundamental problems of how a scientist’s life experiences inform her ways of knowing and how that relationship should inform our thinking about what constitutes feminist science. As a class, we had discussed a variety of feminist perspectives on the life of Barbara McClintock, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist. Sally’s choice to examine the life of renowned primatologist Dian Fossey allowed her to develop a powerful comparison with the literature interpreting McClintock’s experience as a woman in relation to her style of doing science. Sally’s paper beautifully lays out specific differences in styles of primatological field work and skillfully demonstrates their connections to both Dian Fossey’s individual experiences and the nature of feminist science.
—Michael R. Dietrich, History and Philosophy of Science Program

“While she preferred the anecdotal approach in describing what she saw, [Sandy] Harcourt favored statistical quantification . . . . He suggested she do the same, but Fossey wouldn’t hear of it. She was using well-established methods, and she was the world authority on gorillas” (Hayes 288). The “world authority on gorillas” was Dian Fossey; the “well-established methods” could only be described as Fossey’s science. Although she had little formal education and no training before beginning her mountain gorilla research in the Virunga Volcano region of East Africa, Fossey spent almost 20 years of her life observing, photographing, and writing about these animals. But learning about the gorillas’ eating habits, mating rituals, and migration routes quickly became secondary to her developing relationships—friendships—with the gorillas in her study groups. And, after establishing this closeness, she wanted to protect the animals’ lives as she would her own family members’. Thus became what Fossey described as “active conservationism” (Fossey 57): saving the gorillas through tough anti-poaching practices. This often entailed risking human lives for the preservation of gorilla lives. Therefore, the “well-established methods” of “Fossey’s science” extended beyond a qualification, rather than quantification, of her data—beyond observing the animals through interaction rather than at a distance. Fossey felt a connection, a sense of community, with “her” gorillas. Would a male primatologist have felt the same? Would he have allowed himself to turn his back on value-neutral, emotion-barren, empirical science for the intimacy and attachment that Fossey actively nurtured? Likely not. But what Fossey accomplished that few other scientists studying animals in the wild could also claim was her interaction with individual gorillas—touching their hand with hers. Fossey subsumed the paradigms of objective “male” science in favor of a more “female” analysis and perspective. Feminine science defines Fossey’s science: she placed herself—body, mind, and spirit—within the animals’ lives. Her perspective was not muddled by her attachment, as many traditional (male) scientists may argue. It was clarified.
         It is likely that Fossey’s desire to create friendships with the gorillas was influenced by the lack of closeness to her family. Three-year-old Dian had no siblings to comfort her when her parents divorced. And when her mother remarried when Fossey was five, not only was mentioning her father’s name forbidden (Montgomery 51), but her mother also aligned herself with her new husband, away from her daughter. Because Fossey “abhorred her stepfather [Richard Price]” (Hayes 55), she felt abandoned by her mother. When she was old enough to look back on her young life, Fossey realized that she was “starved for affection” and was “uncertain of her value to anyone else” (Hayes 55-56). But this analysis was not confined to her childhood; many defined the adult Fossey as aloof and snobbish (Hayes 52), which precluded the possibility of forming large friendship networks. Fossey also had difficulties maintaining romantic relationships. From Alexie Forrester, the man she decided not to marry, to Robert Campbell, the married man she wished she could marry, Fossey realized, because of these unfulfilling relationships, that she would never have a husband, home, and family. Despite the fact that Fossey dedicated her life to studying and protecting mountain gorillas, she still “longed for a husband and babies” (Montgomery 49).
         Much of this void was likely socially-influenced. During the early- to mid-1960s when Fossey began her research, society’s estimation of a woman’s worth resided primarily in her roles as wife and mother. Bruno Bettelheim claimed, in 1965, that “as much as women want to be good scientists . . . they want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers” (15). How strongly Fossey was influenced by such an assumption is debatable. But it is true that Fossey was jealous of Jane Goodall, a fellow primate researcher, because Goodall “had it all . . . a career, husband, and child” (Montgomery 115). The bottom line of this battle between family and career is that Fossey ultimately chose her passion, her true love, her calling: her career with the wild apes. She did not abandon this choice at any time to marry, or have children, or even to pursue a romantic relationship.
         Rarely is it mentioned in biographies whether unmarried male scientists are resentful of their married colleagues for having a wife and children. Rarely is more than a sentence, if that much, devoted to the mention of these scientists’ marital status. But Fossey’s unmarried, childless state is analyzed throughout books and articles about her. Clearly, her solitary lifestyle was just as much a challenge to society’s sensibilities of a “woman’s role” inside the home (rather than out in the jungle), as it was a painful issue for Fossey herself; she was not awarded the respect given to male scientists by keeping her personal life—including her occasional loneliness—private. Harold Hayes’ references to Fossey’s appearance (57, 169, 217, and 246), her relationships with men (a total of 56 page references in the index under the title “romantic affairs of”), and her fluctuating emotional states (throughout the book) in his biography The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey exemplify others’ interpretations of Fossey as either a woman or a woman scientist. But never as just a scientist.
         Ironically, Fossey mentioned early in her research that she “had never been a scientist, wasn’t one now, and had no interest in becoming one” (Hayes, 241). Perhaps this conclusion stemmed from her inability to qualify for veterinary school during her first two years at the University of California, Davis. The reason: low grades in her science courses, specifically physics and chemistry (Hayes 138). But because she felt “compelled to protect the vulnerable, the innocent” (Montgomery 58), she became an occupational therapist at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky (Hayes 39). Fossey loved working with children—especially “vulnerable” children who needed her. Her role as a mother figure in this position fulfilled Vivianne T. Nachmias’ description of the “Commitment Required of a Woman” (article title): that her professional life be taken as seriously as her “ability to care for and love her family and other people” (33). Even though this analysis was written in 1965, the belief that a woman scientist is first a woman and then a scientist—or at least each role must be played simultaneously—remained throughout Fossey’s career in the 1970s to early 1980s, and in the 1990s is only beginning to be questioned.
         But Fossey allowed neither her occasional loneliness nor the social expectation to be dependent on a man and to have children dependent on her to dissuade her from her independent-minded goals. Although her dream to become a veterinarian dissolved, she followed through on another lifetime ambition: to go on an African safari. When she was 28, Fossey borrowed against three years of her occupational therapist salary to go (Montgomery 32). While there, Fossey “met” the mountain gorillas to whom she would soon devote the remainder of her life. Upon her return to the United States, a published article and photographs caught the attention of Louis Leakey, a prehistoric scientist and “founder” of Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee researcher. When Leakey asked Fossey to become his “gorilla girl” (Fossey 4), she couldn’t refuse. He chose Fossey, not just for her interest in the mountain gorillas, but also because she was an “untrained woman” (Hayes 117). According to Leakey, these women are “more sensitive to mother-infant relations, are less likely to arouse aggression in males,” and, unlike trained scientists, tend not to “see too much” (Hayes 117). Leakey’s choosing Fossey and other women seems progressive at first glance: he believed women were more capable than men to conduct this large-scale, long-term research. But this pat on women’s backs may really be a thorn in their sides. The “talent” he saw in women was passivity, sensitivity, and lack of professional training—traditional female gender images. Ironically, these same traits are what have barred women from the sciences: many male scientists assume that these “womanly” qualities are inherent to every woman, that the traits are oppositional to scientific practice, and so women’s low representation in the sciences is therefore “justified.” So was Leakey’s preference of women, for the conditions cited above, a boost for women in the sciences or a boot? Did he challenge men’s domination of the sciences or reinforce it? For “hard” sciences, like chemistry or physics, it is debatable whether those individuals (primarily women?) who are sensitive and affective would be an asset to the field. But such traits may be beneficial within physical anthropology—or specifically, primate studies.
         The main difference between primate studies and physics, for example, is the fact that the animals are individuals with whom one can communicate. They are alive. This is not to argue that physics is dead, like Latin. Far from it. But for many, looking into a gorilla’s or chimpanzee’s eyes is like looking into the eyes of our ancestors; to communicate with them is to communicate with our past. This connection was part of Fossey’s fascination with and devotion to the mountain gorillas, as made apparent by her communion with the apes on their territory. Fossey understood that the gorillas are human beings’ ancestors. This understanding perhaps explains why Fossey opted not to stand away from the animals—both literally and figuratively—and merely observe. She wanted to connect with them in a way that she could not with other human beings, such as with her mother, stepfather, and numerous paramours. This juncture could be where some argue that Fossey’s work was unscientific: she did not have the “scientific” distance that allows the scientist to watch and analyze rationally, unencumbered by emotion. Fossey’s time with the gorillas was not unemotional or detached in any way. So did this make her study and her findings unscientific? According to traditional, male-dominated science, yes. But Fossey was operating from a different scientific base—namely, that of feminine science.
         Feminists “all agree that the women’s movement does make important contributions to the growth of knowledge,” including scientific knowledge (Harding 57). The women’s movement, of course, refers to the specifically female perspectives that fuel equal rights issues. Therefore, as a feminine scientist Fossey brought her own female socializations into her research work. By examining the gorillas’ social dynamics, feelings, and interconnectedness, Fossey was drawing on her own experiences growing up female: she learned how to develop a community of friendships and to accept one’s own—and others’—emotions. Specifically, “women have been taught that, as females, their strengths lie in empathy with and concern for other individuals” (Norwood 211). For Fossey, “other individuals” were gorillas. Within Fossey’s autobiography, Gorillas in the Mist, she relays a situation in which she and student John Fowler reintroduce a baby gorilla, Bonne Annee, into the wild.

Humans ceased to exist for Bonne Annee. The baby slowly left John’s arms and descended the tree to rejoin her own kind. As she passed me I reached for her almost instinctively as a mother reaches out to protect her child from danger. Then, fully realizing that it was not for me to interfere with the infant’s decision, I withdrew my arm. . . . The two females began fighting for possession of the baby, pulling at her extremities. . . . Bonne Annee screamed with pain and fright. After ten minutes I could not take any more. My intentions to remain a detached scientific observer dissolved. . . . I climbed down to rescue the baby. . . . Then, . . . the baby again left the protections of [John’s] arms and returned to Tuck and Effie. This time I made no move to stop her. (225)

Fossey cites her own actions as “instinct,” motherly, and of a protective nature. Noting that her “intentions to remain a detached scientific observer dissolved” suggests that such aims were not natural for her—she had to deliberately adopt them, implement them into her consciousness. A detached, “scientific” focus was a trait that had to be learned; it was not humanly natural. What was instinctual was to protect an animal from harm, despite the fact that it “should” be with its own kind no matter what. Thus is one potential facet of feminine science: allowing human (not “female”) emotion into the picture—to make human ethics a key element of research methodology.
         Also valued by Fossey were the relationships she developed with certain members of her study groups. “‘On perceiving the softness, tranquility, and trust conveyed by Macho’s [a female gorilla’s] eyes,’ Dian wrote, ‘I was overwhelmed by the extraordinary depth of our rapport. The poignancy of her gift will never diminish’” (Montgomery 144). For Fossey, the gorillas were not just data, or even just animals; they were near humans. She was certainly the “victim” of anthropomorphism, “the attribution of human characteristics to animals” (Hayes 140). In the behavioral sciences this can spell doom for the scientist because, as many assert, such an “unscientific attitude” results in human reason undermined by human feeling (Hayes 140). The strong suggestion here is that the anthropomorphizing scientist is somehow doing bad science. But if the scientist conducts thorough research and concludes with the same findings as a “good” scientist (i.e., one who recognizes the animals as nonhumans, as data), then where is there harm in seeing human traits in animals? Or would it be more accurate to say “animal traits in humans?” Because detachment and neutrality are often labeled male, then their opposites, connection and opinion, are therefore “female” by default. Claiming that anthropomorphism is always a bad technique—or is a trap—implies that any scientist who practices it is practicing faulty science. Since female scientists may be more apt to connect with their subjects—they more often than males apply human characteristics to their data in order to aid in empathy and understanding—then feminine science is being discredited.
         Perhaps viewing her animals as individuals further backed Fossy into the anthropomorphic corner. This mind-set, however, led her to an interesting discovery. “Just as every human being has distinct fingerprints, every gorilla has a distinct noseprint—linear indentations above the nostrils” (Fossey 11); the shape of each gorilla’s nostrils is also unique (11). While other (male?) scientists would have shot tranquilizers at each gorilla, then tagged them for identification purposes, Fossey opted not to disrupt the animals. Instead, she learned to identify them in their natural state. Because she viewed the gorillas “as the amazing individuals that they were” (Fossey 11), she respected their space and knew that to alter the animals’ daily activities (for example, by tranquilizing them) would hinder her research; her observations would be affected, if only temporarily, by human input.
         Unlike traditional science which seeks to control Nature, Fossey, as a feminine scientist, had the utmost respect for the environment that surrounded her. As a part of Nature, “Fossey’s” gorillas were never challenged or disrupted by their observer. At first, “Dian observed the animals from a distance, silently, hidden” (Montgomery 53). After a few months, however, open contacts helped her “win the animals’ acceptance” (Fossey 11). But Fossey did not announce her presence to the gorillas as she would do to a group of humans; instead, she adopted the gorillas’ movements and habits. She “imitated their contentment vocalizations . . . [and] crunched wild celery stalks. She crouched, eyes averted, scratching herself loud and long, as gorillas do” (Montgomery 53). Even during the rare times she used binoculars, she “always wrapped vines around [them] in an attempt to disguise the potentially threatening glass eyes from the shy animals” (Fossey 11). She even realized that standing upright “increased the animals’ apprehension. That discovery marked the beginning of [her] knuckle-walking days” (Fossey 13). Fossey never wanted to challenge the gorillas with her foreign presence; she claimed that “any observer is an intruder . . . and must remember that the rights of that animal supersede human interests” (Fossey 14). While traditional science places humans at the top of the Animalia hierarchy—with the job of uncovering the mysteries of Nature (and destroying them if they conflict with human interests)—Fossey’s scientific practice positioned Nature, the gorilla, as foremost. In considering the animals the most important in the researcher-researched relationship—in subsuming human will—Fossey was able to discover the complexities and depth of the gorillas’ individual beings and their placements within their distinct communities.
         Fossey’s discoveries of the mountain gorilla were many, but one of the most important was the animals’ gentleness to one another (and to Fossey)—very unlike Hollywood’s “gorilla,” the barbaric King Kong. In addition, Fossy realized her subjects had “strong bonds of kinship [which] contributed toward the cohesiveness of a gorilla family unit” (Fossey 105). Fossey learned of the gorillas’ “cohesiveness” because she was, over time, accepted by many of the individuals as an extension of their kinship network.

Leaving [Digit, a male gorilla from Group Four] to his solitude, I settled several yards from the group. . . . After a few minutes, I felt an arm around my shoulders. I looked up into Digit’s warm, gentle brown eyes. He stood pensively gazing down at me before patting my head and plopping down by my side. I lay my head on Digit’s lap. . . . (199)

Fossey experienced first-hand the tenderness many of the gorillas expressed. Had she stayed at a distance, watching the animals through binoculars during the entire course of her research, individuals like Digit would never have felt comfortable enough with her to put his arm around her shoulder, and certainly not relaxed enough to allow a human to put her head in his lap. Although, from a “scientific” distance, Fossey may have noticed the animals express affection for or kindness towards their own group members, the attention she received, as a human being, is key. The gorillas were wild—not even as domesticated as zoo-confined animals which experience daily human contact. But despite their “savageness,” the gorillas opened up to a human (their only predator) and treated her as one of their own. This kinship behavior helped convince many people of our own ancient ties to the great apes. Likely, elephants, or giraffes, or polar bears would not accept a human researcher as kin, treating him or her as they would a sibling or cousin. Fossey’s connection with the gorillas was like a connection with our past, our roots.
         Fossey did not come to her conclusions—her connections—through standard scientific methods. Although she did write extensive notes on the animals’ behavior, compiling 200-typed pages within her first couple months of research (Hayes 50)—she “refused to check sheets, a standard tool in ethology, to record the behavior of the gorilla groups” (Montgomery 146). Nor did Fossey take her notes on a “‘sampling schedule’ . . . [on which] behavior is recorded only at precise intervals” (146). For Fossey, numbers, percentages, statistics, and graphs were too impersonal; the “character and depth of the gorillas’ lives could not be accurately portrayed with such mechanistic methods. She did not want to merely ‘sample’ their lives; she wanted to experience them” (146). In “experiencing” the gorillas, the memories of her research were characterized as “humorous, perplexing, sad, tender, [and] loving” (Fossey 105), rather than “informative” or “significant.” Clearly her data were both significant and informative, but she focused instead on the more emotional, affective aspects of her study.
         Most other scientists who worked alongside Fossey—whether at her Karisoke research center in the Virungas, or back in the United States—objected to her research methods. In Walking With the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, Sy Montgomery states that “Dian failed to learn the most important rule of male-dominated empirical science: the rule of separation, of distance from her study subjects” (144). Sandy Harcourt emphasizes this claim when he notes that “she treated [the gorillas] as friends. . . . She had personal likes and dislikes of the individual animals . . . [which] affected her interpretation of their behavior” (Hayes 292). Montgomery’s assertion clearly positions “male-dominated” science as superior to any other form; Harcourt is convinced that Fossey’s data became flawed once her human emotions entered the picture. What neither observer admits, however, is the very different perspective Fossey gained—different from any other male primate researcher before. Fossey was “the first person to develop a technique for habituating the animals to intimate observation” (Norwood 210). Her connection, rather than the “preferred” separation, brought her closer to the animals, physically and emotionally, than anyone else. She made the mountain gorillas more approachable, in an academic sense, more understandable—more human-like. She helped people understand the connection between the animal kingdom and human existence; between Self and Other; between “the wild” and ourselves.
         Fossey’s attachment to the gorillas became so intense that she literally risked her life for theirs. As though her own children’s lives were at risk, Fossey focused her energies at Karisoke fighting the poachers who were killing the gorillas for the animals’ hands, genitals (males), and heads. She called her strategy “‘active conservationism’: it included funding her own ‘army’ of antipoaching scouts, torturing poachers, burning their possessions, and kidnapping their children” (Montgomery 215). Fossey’s “malevolence [which] was difficult to imagine” (Hayes 33) was never clearly detailed in her autobiography. However, Fossey was convinced that her role in saving the gorillas was essential—whether by cutting down traps or by torturing the poachers themselves. The poachers were not just depleting her study subjects; they were murdering her friends and her family. Many observers of Fossey’s extreme behavior concluded that she “lost it very severely” (Montgomery 215) and that her relationships with the gorillas were “exclusive, passionate, and dangerous” (Montgomery 57). But they had not earned the respect, trust, and loyalty that many of the gorilla individuals gave to Fossey, and to very few others.
         Fossey’s drive to “actively” rescue the animals grew out of the writing of her thesis. Her advisor wanted numbers, so she included “careful mapping of vegetation zones and gorilla ranges . . . [as well as] analysis of age classes and maternal behavior” (Montgomery 151). But such statistical interpretations “did nothing to protect the gorillas” Fossey argued: “science . . . would not save the mountain gorilla” (151). Science was too detached to rescue an endangered species; it didn’t care, so claimed Fossey. To relate one-on-one with the animals, to feel for them, was to care. Although Fossey was clearly a feminine scientist, she also embodied ecofeminist tenets. Because ecofeminism “describes women’s efforts to save the Earth from ecological disaster” (Cox 282), Fossey’s protection of the gorilla (and all animals) positions her as a practitioner of ecofeminism. Especially since activism—rather than theory-production—is such a large aspect of this Earth-centered movement (Cox 282), Fossey’s disregard of theory-laden science in favor of real-life action strengthens her ecofeminist position. Since science won’t save gorillas, according to Fossey, but ecofeminist-based activism will, science and ecofeminism become severed. If Fossey was a scientist, but she was not practicing “Science,” what was she? By fusing ecofeminist activism with traditional scientific analysis with the connectivity of feminine science, Fossey created her own scientific vision, one that produced scientific information, honored the study subjects as special individuals, and upheld a safe environment for her “data.” In a way, Fossey created a new science.
         The Hutu and Batwa locals called Dian Fossey Nyiramachabelli: the old lady who lives in the forest without a man (Fossey 154). Her experiences in Africa, including her murder in 1985, “exemplified British and American fears about what might happen to women who ventured too far outside the bounds of domesticity” (Norwood 210). It was generally agreed upon, therefore, that Dian Fossey was not a “normal” woman. It was also argued that she was not a “normal” scientist. Her physical closeness to the gorillas, her emotional attachment to them, her reliance on words and not numbers to express her findings, and her vicious attacks on local poachers all exemplified her nontraditional methodology. But should “abnormal” science mean “wrong” science? Any research practice that is not detached, objective, and unemotional is deemed, by the male-dominated, (dominant) science as bad science. But if women had always been equally represented in science—or especially if they dominated it—then Fossey’s respect of Nature, attention to her animal subjects as individuals, and her relating to them on human terms would not be unusual. The point, then, is not to turn one’s back on any form of science that is not value-neutral. Rather one should inspect it, and possibly make it an alternative avenue for legitimate research. Fossey made fascinating discoveries about the previously-elusive mountain gorillas: they have a gentle, calm nature; they establish familial bonds and community networks; and most of all, they can relate very intimately with humans. But, as Fossey proved, to gain this trust one must adopt the animals’ movements, facial expressions, and vocalizations. One has to prove that he or she can see, accept, and understand a different way of behaving, an alternative viewpoint. So too must traditional science step back for a moment to allow the intricacies of another viewpoint, feminine science, to be noticed—and understood. And only then, when women’s different perspectives are taken as legitimate and valued, will a connection be made. Male-dominated science need only offer a respectful distance, as Dian Fossey did to the gorillas, to allow the Other—the misunderstood—to come forward and sit down beside it.

Works Cited

Cox, Cat. “Eco-feminism.” Inventing Women. Eds. Gill Kirkup and Laurie Smith Keller. Cambridge: The Open University, 1992. 282-93.

Bettelheim, Bruno. “Commitment Required of a Woman.” Women and the Scientific Professions: The MIT Symposium on American Women in Science and Engineering. Eds. Jacquelyn A. Mattfeld and Carol G. Van Aken. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1965. 1-19.

Fossey, Dian. Gorillas In The Mist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Harding, Sandra. “How the Women’s Movement Benefits Science: Two Views.” Inventing Women. Eds. Gill Kirkup and Laurie Smith Keller. Cambridge: The Open University, 1992. 57-72.

Hayes, Harold T.P. The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Montgomery, Sy. Walking With the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Nachmias, Vivianne T. “Commitment Required of a Woman.” Women and the Scientific Professions: The MIT Symposium on American Women in Science and Engineering. Eds. Jacquelyn A. Mattfeld and Carol G. Van Aken. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1965. 29-34.

Norwood, Vera. Made From This Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.