Authors: Farley Mowat
“He now wants to postpone the wedding for two years!” she wrote to the Prices. “He says, being a student, he feels he’s not ready financially to take on a wife! Of course, I would intend to work, but that doesn’t seem to be his style. He feels some horrible stigma attaches to the working wife. That aunt of his, the nun, influenced him greatly. I know she didn’t like me—or you, I might add. You know, being divorced and so on. Anyway, please don’t be heartbroken because I’m not. I’ve made it clear I don’t intend to wait around for another two years if he can’t make up his mind.”
A few weeks later, in March 1966, Dr. Louis Leakey, whom she had not seen or heard from since her visit to Olduvai Gorge three years earlier, arrived in Louisville on a lecture tour—and the course of Dian’s life was irrevocably changed.
he auditorium was filled almost an hour before the lecture began, and I had to sit nearly at the back. I had brought along the three articles I’d written for the Louisville
about my African safari. After Dr. Leakey had given his talk, which enthralled the audience, I nervously joined the line of people eager to speak with him. When my turn came, he gave a crinkly smile of recognition and gave my hand a good long squeeze. I was so surprised he knew me that I just pushed my damp and wrinkled articles into his hand with the rushed explanation that he might be interested in reading the article on Olduvai.
His eyes narrowed into the perceptive squints that I was later to know as his “keen” look. “Miss Fossey, isn’t it? Please wait until I’ve finished with all these people.” Not knowing what to expect, I waited at the back of the stage until finally he came over and started throwing a barrage of questions at me. Had I gone to Kabara? With whom did I go? Why did I go there? How often had I been able to see the gorillas? What was my current profession, and what were my plans for the future?
I told him that all I really wanted was to spend my life working with animals-that had always been my dream,
and I was especially interested in the gorillas on the Virunga mountains.
Leakey was again struck by the intensity of this tall, handsome woman who had lingered in his memory long after their first meeting.
“And how is your ankle? Did it heal properly?”
She looked at him, astonished that he recalled the incident, then laughed. “Yes, you bandaged it beautifully. Not a bone out of place.”
“Come to my hotel tomorrow morning at eight. You might be just the person I have in mind to start a long-term study of gorillas.”
During that night half my mind was already planning resolutely for the dozens of things that would need to be done before leaving for the Virungas, while the other half kept admonishing, “It’s not possible. Things just don’t happen like this!” In the morning I rushed off to the hotel on my way to work, wearing my weary white hospital garb, though I’d been sorely tempted to don my treasured safari clothes.
Our interview lasted about an hour. Dr. Leakey did most of the talking. He praised Jane Goodall, then in her sixth year studying chimpanzees. Using her as his prime example, he told me of his conviction that women made far better field students of animals than men because of their patience and capacity to give more fully of themselves.
He said he had “already tested” twenty-two applicants for the gorilla field work and had not been satisfied with any of them. I found myself wondering why I, just an occupational therapist, should be considered above others much better qualified. Though I had an absolute conviction that I could succeed, I nonetheless found myself giving Dr. Leakey reasons why I should not be selected:
Number one, I had no means of funding myself. He waved this off as a minor problem, totally confident that it was one he was especially capable of handling. I told him
that although I’d had two years of preveterinary medicine before switching to occupational therapy, I had no training in anthropology, ethology, biology, zoology, or any of the other “ologies.” Leakey scoffed, “I have no use for overtrained people. I prefer those who are not specifically educated for this field since they go into the work with open minds and without prejudice and preconceptions.” Then I brought up my age-thirty-four. “But this is the perfect age to begin such work,” Leakey said. “You have attained maturity and won’t be apt to take rash actions.”
We then discussed George Schaller’s work, and just as I felt the meeting was drawing to a close, he suddenly asked, “Have you had your appendix out?” When I answered no, he launched into some hair-raising stories of people who had been struck down by appendicitis in remote regions and suffered lingering deaths. He concluded, “So you will have to have your appendix removed.”
For the next few weeks I carried on my duties with the crippled children whom I dearly loved, giving no indication of the excitement bubbling inside me. Of course, the first priority was to get rid of the appendix, which seemed a small sacrifice for such an opportunity.
Paying the full cost of the operation was impossible on my loan-repayment budget, so I had to let a doctor friend in on my secret. I asked if he knew a surgeon who would attend to it as though it were a necessary appendectomy. The surgeon was found, the date was set, and it was only left up to me to convincingly feign appendicitis. Two days of pitiful moans and side-clutching (sometimes the wrong side) was persuasive enough.
The operation was routine, except for my waking up in the recovery room and yelling, “Are the gorillas really worth this?”
When I arrived home from the hospital, there was a letter from Dr. Leakey. “Actually, there isn’t any dire need
for you to have your appendix removed,” it began. I nearly burst my stitches in indignation.
But my exasperation turned to joy when I read on to discover he was formally offering me the job, if I still wanted it, and if he could corral a suitable grant.
The letter read like a gilt-edged invitation to heaven. Dr. Leakey told her that he would try to arrange for all her travel expenses and the money needed to set up a camp and pay for one or more African helpers, her food, and photographic supplies. He would try to raise enough to pay her a small salary, as he had done for Jane Goodall, with the expectation that she could earn additional funds by writing articles about her research.
He cited the National Geographic Society as likely to act as her sponsor if she agreed to give them first refusal on photographs and articles. After she had established a rapport with the gorillas, Dian might need the services of a film cameraman, who could be attached to the camp, to produce a television movie from which she should receive a substantial amount, Leakey surmised. And, he concluded, National Geographic might want a popular book from her in addition to the scientific one she, of course, would write.
He wanted her out in the field “as soon as possible” but still had no word on permission for her to go to Kabara and was intending to visit the ambassador for the Congo Republic, in Nairobi, to tend to the matter.
Two days after receiving Leakey’s offer, Dian submitted her resignation to Korsair Children’s Hospital. Her plan was to drive her ancient Saab to the Prices’ home in California, where she would await word from Leakey on grants and travel permits.
When she told Alexie of her decision, he was incredulous, then furious.
“You must be out of your mind! A white woman alone in that part of Africa? Are you trying to commit suicide?”
The Prices were even more shaken than when Dian had announced she had converted to Catholicism.
“What’s come over you?” Kitty cried. “Why are you doing this to us?”
“Mother,” Dian pleaded, “it’s an incredible offer. I’ll never have such an opportunity again in my life. I just won’t turn it down.”
“Opportunity? To live with wild gorillas and wild natives?”
“You don’t understand, Mother. I’ll be doing utterly fascinating research, the first of its kind.”
“Why can’t you be like other girls?” her mother moaned. “Look at Mary White, how happy she is. What have you done with your real opportunities?”
“I’m different from Mary. I want different things.”
When Dian shared her plans with Father Raymond, the Trappist monk who had introduced to her Catholicism, he seemed relieved that she was steering away from Alexie Forrester, of whom he may have been a little jealous.
“This African research project is a gift from God,” he wrote the Prices. “She will never be satisfied with the common, ordinary things most girls of her day are satisfied with. She requires some truly stupendous accomplishment before she will be at ease on earth. She will never be perfectly satisfied until she is the saint she longs to be….”
Resolutely Dian clung to her decision.
Now it was time to take the next step toward Kabara, which meant severing the deep attachments of many years in Louisville. Leaving the place I’d grown to love-the children, my home, the farm dogs, and my friends-was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.
She drove to California but found that staying with the Prices was particularly uncomfortable after several years spent on her own.
As the months dragged by with no further instructions from Dr. Leakey she slipped into a depression. Though she studied Swahili and audited a class in primatology at Stanford University, she began to think she had lost the gorilla project as well as everything else. In desperation she wrote to Leakey:
“On August 1, I left everything I owned and loved in Kentucky to come to California. I did this on the basis of your correspondence, which made a departure date seem imminent. I realize that unforeseen hindrances have arisen that you are certainly not accountable for, but I cannot endure another three months of nonproductivity. It is for this reason that I must ask you for a definitive date of departure….
“If you think that more than a month will elapse before you can send for me, then I most definitely shall have to set about finding another occupational therapy job somewhere in the States…. This is certainly not the way I’d hoped things would turn out, but I’m neither financially nor constitutionally able to endure another month of idleness.”
Shortly thereafter, Leakey cabled that the Wilkie Foundation, which for years had supported Jane Goodall, had agreed to provide a grant to establish the gorilla project. Although it would be another few weeks before National Geographic funding fell into place, the Wilkie money was enough to get things moving.
Dian’s luggage included an Olivetti typewriter and four cameras together with tripod, lenses, and countless rolls of film. She boxed enough paper, notebooks, envelopes, carbon paper, pens, and typewriter ribbons to equip a moderate-sized office. She also purchased at least a three-year supply of heavy-duty clothing, including jeans, parkas, and army surplus ponchos.
Finally, on December 15, 1966, Dian Fossey departed for Africa.
Her mother was almost too upset to bid her farewell, but Richard Price spoke on her behalf. “I need not tell you that your mother is heartbroken,” he said sternly. “I can only hope you will learn something sensible from this experience, though I’m not sure what.”
Dian journeyed by way of Louisville, where she again said goodbye to Mary White, to Mary’s ailing mother, Mrs. Henry, to Father Raymond, and to her associates and the children at
the Korsair hospital. She also phoned Alexie, who was still angry. “If that’s your calling, I can’t stop you, but I think you’ll wish you’d decided differently,” he told her.
“I’m not forgetting you, Alexie, and I am not saying good-bye.”
In Washington, D.C., she visited her National Geographic sponsors.
Unfortunately, as I was preparing to leave California, I had come down once again with pneumonia, and it goes without saying that I presented a sorry specimen of an “intrepid gorilla girl” to my sponsors and everyone else I met. I was to learn later That the National Geographic Society’s vice-president for research wrote to Dr. Leakey expressing his serious misgivings about my ability to do the job.
In London she spent two days with Jane Goodall’s mother and sister. While waiting for the night flight to Nairobi, heavily dosed with antibiotics, coughing and shaking with fever, her attention was caught by an announcement on the public address system.
“Paging Mrs. Root. Will Mrs. Root please come to the
information desk for a telephone call.” The name didn’t register until I chanced to look up and see Joan rushing over to the nearest courtesy phone, where a call from Alan was awaiting her. I flew across the lobby, trailing wads of Kleenex, and arrived at her side to hear her say: “Alan, guess who’s here? It’s Dian from Kabara.” A murmuring followed on the line. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “I’m going to study the Virunga gorillas at Kabara.” I could hear Alan’s squawks of incredulity.
Our flight was called, and as we waited to board I explained briefly how it had all come about. I could sense that Joan, too, thought the whole scheme was preposterous. We switched to the topic of their latest filming project in the Galápagos. It was only later that I was to realize how very fortunate this unexpected meeting was for me.
I was met in Nairobi on the morning of December 22 by Dr. Leakey’s secretary, Mrs. Crisp, and within minutes we were speeding away from the airport to a small hotel near the Coryndon Museum where he had his offices. Stepping from the car onto the slick stone patio of the hotel, I felt both feet slide out from under me and made as graceful a landing as possible on both knees. As I sat back and watched the blood gush, Mrs. Crisp said, as only a British woman could: “Oh, what a pity, you’ve laddered your stockings!” I burst into hysterical laughter, which no doubt gave Mrs. Crisp pause to reflect on the recruiting abilities of her employer.
First day back in Africa or not, I pleaded the need for sleep. Later in the afternoon I was awakened by a phone call from Dr. Leakey, asking me to meet him at the museum the next morning. He seemed very fit, far more so than when I’d last seen him in Louisville, and his enthusiasm for seeing another of his projects launched matched my own. He introduced me to his staff, then we hastily drew up a list of essential materials I’d need to collect before leaving for Kabara. Though the Congo was in political turmoil, and I still had not received official government permission to work in the Parc des Virungas, neither of us gave a thought to making a reconnaissance trip. Many people thought this was a foolhardy way to begin a long-term research project, but we were both far too anxious to get started.