Assessing an outcast

October 26 1987

Assessing an outcast

October 26 1987

Assessing an outcast


Farley Mowat has provided Canadians with many surprises over the years. Author of such best-selling books about animal life as Never Cry Wolf (1963), Mowat, 66, is also known for his activism in a variety of causes. With his latest book, Virunga, Mowat takes a sympathetic look at the the life of Dian Fossey, whose work with the rare mountain gorillas of Central Africa’s Virunga mountains made her a controversial figure. Before her much-publicized 1985 murder—Fossey was killed by numerous blows to the head from an unknown assailant—she had spent 18 years studying and living with the gorillas. With the help of unpublished documents, Mowat has examined her unconventional life and hostile determination to protect the animals. Mowat spoke with Maclean’s correspondent Suzanne Sandor:

Maclean’s: You never met Fossey. How did you get so interested in her?

Mowat: I wasn’t really all that interested initially. Normally I just laugh at people who propose books to me—and I did in this case. [Publisher] Jack McClel-

land approached me and I said, ‘Come on Jack, don’t be silly, I don’t do that kind of book.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t know much about Fossey, do you?’ So I read everything I could find—which wasn’t much—and it struck me that perhaps I had misjudged her. I had assumed that she was a bit of a kook. And I

The only thing Dian Fossey could do was to fight with her back to the wall for the survival of the mountain gorillas9

did some more investigating, talking to people who knew her, and decided that the story was probably worth telling. I was not really committed to it fully, though, until my associate, Wade Rowland, discovered these archives, and I began to see into her life instead of seeing her from the outside.

Maclean’s: Near the beginning of Virun-

ga, you mention the pleasure Fossey took in her zebra-skin footstool and vicuña rug. Was not her fierce protection of the gorillas hypocritical?

Mowat: Well, of course, at that point she I was not uptight about things like that at all—she was in much the same position that I was at her age when I was still a student naturalist, still killing birds and animals for science. She had not yet made the necessary connections. And I think that this is an extraordinarily Í important point: whatever she did for I the gorillas, the animals did something of transcendental value for her. They made the connection between humanity and the rest of animate creation. She responded to that by becoming totally dedicated to that concept. But in her , early years she was just as foolish as I most of us.

Maclean’s: What exactly is the threat to the gorillas?

Mowat: The poachers who go out and kill [animals] to feed themselves are not the villains in this story, and they are very, very minor in the story of Fossey’s life. | The real villains were the commercial killers of animals who wanted trophies and wanted to capture the young to sell to zoos. These people are pretty atrocious.

Maclean’s: Why was Fossey so opposed to zoos of any kind?

Mowat: She could see no utility in put-

ting animals into zoos to be stared at by human beings, and I agree with her 100 per cent. We can watch TV and see the reality. And a film of a gorilla is infinitely more informative than going to a zoo and looking at a prisoner in a cage. I do not think we have any right to do that.

Maclean’s: Do you agree with those who derided Fossey because of her own avowed tendency to put animal survival above human survival?

Mowat: That is the attitude of a great many critics of Dian Fossey: that we are allowing ourselves to think as much about other forms of life as we do about our own. From my point of view, this is the only possible way to think about life. To separate mankind from the rest of creation is madness. It creates an incredible injustice, and it may very well doom us.

Maclean’s: But do all animals not set their own species above every other?

Mowat: It is not a conscious act—they do not work at it the way we do. They cannot suppress other forms of life to their own advantage the way we do. It is

an unconscious, atavistic drive—do the very best you can for your own group or species to survive. It is not a conscious and mechanistic approach.

Maclean’s: But do we really have room

on our overpopulated planet to address the needs of every species?

Mowat: If we do not control our fecundity, if we continue to abuse the rest of life as we are doing now and have done ever since we became civilized animals, we will be left virtually alone upon our planet. It is extremely unlikely that we will be able to survive. We are part of an extraordinarily complex structure. If you eliminate certain sections of it you literally throw the structure out of balance. Then the likelihood that we can heal all of the disasters that we will be faced with is so slim that it is invisible. Maclean’s: But in pragmatic terms, what would the loss of the mountain gorillas mean to the world?

Mowat: You could not give a specific answer to that. But you work on the basis of principle. If you destroy one form of life, simply because it seems to be in your way, or you need the space, or whatever, then you are effectively legitimizing the ongoing destruction of form after form after form.

Maclean’s: Why was Fossey such an outcast, even from the scientific community?

Mowat: Because she stopped being a cog in the machine. As long as she was a pure scientist, she fitted into the structure. Then her values began to change. She began to say, ‘My God, the collection of data about these animals, dead or

alive, is less important than protecting them or giving them a chance to survive.’ She stepped out of line. A scientist who does that becomes anathema to the rest of the establishment. Fossey became a pariah because she was putting more and more emphasis on trying to ensure that the mountain gorillas had a chance for survival than she was on collecting data. She lost control of herself to a degree. She was not able to sit by and watch while the gorillas were being destroyed. She saw very simply that this was the last remaining remnant of a very, very vital and admirable species. And the only thing she could do was to jump right in and fight with her back to the wall for the survival of these animals.

Maclean’s: Fossey was 53 when she was found murdered in her cabin. Do the circum stances of her death in dicate that she was convinced that she might have to sacrifice her own life to help the gorillas?

Mowat: I don’t think so. There is no indication anywhere in her writings that she anticipated death as a result of what she was doing. She talks a lot about life—she was old and sick and crippled but figured, ‘Well, if you can still get up, you can still do things.’ She had no death wish; anybody who says she had a death wish is lying about her.

She had a life wish, but in the event, she paid with her life for what she was doing.

Maclean’s: Would you like to have done what Fossey did?

Mowat: I probably would have done exactly what she did. In fact, I suspect that she and I are really brother and sister * under the skin. Where I live in Cape Breton, we used to have a fair number of grey seals. These are very large seals that live here all year round and they are being exterminated by the government because they are considered to be a threat to the fisheries. Now if I had the courage that Fossey had, I would make it my business to prevent this happening. I do try, but I don’t have the courage to put my life on the line.

Maclean’s: What was your hope in writing this book?

Mowat: Essentially to make a case for the mavericks in our society who step outside the establishment and say, ‘Look, what we’re doing is not valid; we’d better rethink it.’ These mavericks are usually written off as kooks—they are denigrated, they are made fun of, or they are simply disposed of. I believe that these are the people who may possi» bly help lead us out of the prison we are building for ourselves—this human prison in which we become aliens on an alien planet. They are the people who are probably showing us the way, and in that sense, I think this book was an imperative.^