BOOKS: Walking with the Great Apes
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2009:
Walking with the Great Apes
by Sy Montgomery
Chelsea Green Publishing (85 N. Main St., Suite 120,
White River Jct., Vermont 05001), 1991, 2009
264 pages, paperback. $17.95.
Jane Goodall, asserts Walking with the Great Apes author Sy
Montgomery, is the most easily recognizable living scientist in the
western world, primarily from her 50 years of researching and
advocating for chimpanzees.
Dian Fossey, who began her work at about the same time but
reached global prominence sooner, was murdered in 1985. Though her
killer has never been prosecuted, popular belief is that she was
killed in retaliation for her efforts to protect mountain gorillas
from poachers in Rwanda.
Birute Galdikas, starting more than a decade later, spent
years rescuing captive orangutans in the swampy jungles of Indonesia.
All three women were recruited and sent to study great apes
by anthropologist Louis Leakey. All three were sponsored and first
made famous by National Geographic.
Sy Montgomery profiled each of the three in Walking With The
Great Apes (1991), now reissued. The first section describes each
woman’s entry into the field.
Asthma, smoking, and a bout with pneumonia nearly crippled
Fossey’s lungs, but she hiked up the mountains in Rwanda, albeit
slowly, to be with her beloved gorillas. Fossey’s father, a heavy
drinker, split with the family when she was young. Fossey clashed
with her stepfather. “She would spit on the ground whenever her
stepfather’s name was mentioned,” says Montgomery. Fossey socked
away money from her job as an occupational therapist to visit Africa
on a safari. Her parents nearly thwarted her plans, but she went
anyway. Africa changed her life.
Goodall always loved animals and nature. A high school
guidance counselor admonished Goodall for wanting to study animals.
She said, “No girl can do that.”
Goodall’s long career with chimpanzees started in 1960 at
Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve, when she was just 26 years old.
Mothering, she soon observed, is the single most important force in
chimpanzee society. Good chimpanzee mothers raise “adept, competent
A Lithuanian born in Germany, who grew up in Canada,
Galdikas moved to Borneo in 1971. Sent to do research, Galdikas
became better known for rehabilitating captive orangutans for return
to the wild.
In section two, Montgomery describes each woman’s
relationship to Louis Leakey. Not until late in his career did
Leakey envision studying the great apes, says Montgomery. She
suggests that Leakey prefered women as his “right-hand people,”
which his wife must have noticed.
Rwandans called Fossey “Nyirama-chabelli,” meaning “the old
woman who lives alone in the mountains without a man.” But a tracker
and students always lived in Fossey’s camp, though she preferred the
company of gorillas. By 1977 poaching became such a threat to the
gorillas Fossey studied that she first rewarded park rangers to
capture the interlopers, then turned to vigilantism.
Fossey humiliated and threatened any suspects she caught,
even shoving mind-altering drugs down their throats and kidnapping
Despite the widespread belief that poachers killed Fossey,
evidence suggests that she was actually killed by an employee or
Goodall, preferring to work alone, learned at Gombe that
chimps, like humans, hunt other animals and share the meat.
Goodall also documented that chimps make and use tools. After 20
years her small camp had become an international research center.
But guerillas from the Marxist Popular Revolutionary Party crossed
from Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) into
Tanzania, kidnapping students to extort money. Chimps were
slaughtered. The region is still recovering from the violent
instability that followed.
The last section of Walking With the Great Apes, which
repeats some information found in the first two sections, reviews
each woman’s accomplishments, challenges, and aspirations.
–Debra J. White