Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dian Fossey Life and Death

Leakey's Angels

Dr. Leakey measuring skull
Dr. Leakey measuring skull

Her timing could not have been more perfect. Leakey was considering sponsoring a long-term study of the mountain gorillas, an endangered cousin of the far more populous lowland gorillas. Leakey asked her to meet him the following morning. At the meeting Leakey explained that he had already interviewed 22 applicants for the gorilla project. Most were male, university-trained scientists.

But Leakey said he preferred the enthusiastic women. This was true.

In 1960, he had been paid a visit in Africa by Jane Goodall, a young native Londoner on extended holiday. Although she was untrained in the sciences, Leakey used his sway to appoint Goodall to begin a study of a community of chimpanzees on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall

Leakey's fame made him an 800-pound gorilla of international funding for archeological and wildlife studies in Africa. He was given broad leverage in making such research appointments.

Fossey was 34, eight years older than Goodall when she began her work. Leakey told Fossey she was the perfect age — mature and beyond the age of rash decisions. Three weeks later, he sent a letter offering Fossey the gorilla job, and he secured funding from the Wilkie Foundation, the source of support for Goodall's work with chimpanzees.

Birute Galdikas with an orangutan
Birute Galdikas with an orangutan

Fossey quit her job, tied up loose ends in Louisville, paid a visit to her family in California and departed for Africa 10 days before Christmas in 1966.

Five years later, Louis Leakey anointed Birute Galdikas, a young Canadian, to study orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo. Together, the three primatologists — Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas — would become known as "Leakey's Angels."

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