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The SciFri Book Club Visits "Gorillas in the Mist"


Up next - let me get a cup of coffee, put my feet down, get cozy, because it's our monthly meeting of the SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club. We have the book club regulars here with us. Flora's still with us. And joining us now is Annette Heist, senior producer for SCIENCE FRIDAY. Welcome to the program, Annette.



FLATOW: And we had another classic book this month which is...

HEIST: "Gorillas in the Mist" by Dian Fossey.

FLATOW: And we want to hear from everybody who's read the book. We you have taken time to read it. Give us a call. Tell us what you thought of it. Do you gave it a thumbs up, thumbs down? Does it make you want to quit your day job and go study gorillas in Africa, or did you think Dian Fossey was a little unusual? I mean, it takes some sort of - certain amount of courage and psyche if you go out there and do that. Our number: 1-800-9898-255 is our number. You can also tweet us @scifri and also go to our website at sciencefriday.com.

Anette, give us your rating - instant rating on the book.

HEIST: Instant rating on the book, two opposable thumbs up.


HEIST: Pretty good.


HEIST: It's possible.

FLATOW: But not five? I mean, let's say a maximum, but...

HEIST: No. I only have two thumbs - so far.


FLATOW: Tell us what you thought of - tell us what you thought.

HEIST: I thought she was a fascinating person, and it really gave - I thought the book gives you a lot of insight on what she was like and her - I would say obsession with these gorillas. She left everything behind, her dogs, her life and went to live in Africa and really gives you, I think, an amazing picture of what these gorillas are like and what it's like to live among them.

Yeah. I agree. I think this the kind of book where there's two things happening at once. First, you have this just amazing story about gorillas, learning about their behavior. They're so much - they're fascinating. I mean...

LICHTMAN: And cute, so cute.

HEIST: ...like very cute, especially through Dian Fossey's eyes.


HEIST: And then you have the, sort of, subplot where you're reading between the lines trying to understand what is motivating this person who's so driven...


HEIST: So driven. And also takes enormous risks.

LICHTMAN: And single-minded in her wanting to protect these gorillas.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR - talking with Annette Heist and Flora Lichtman about "Gorillas in the Mist", our SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club pick.

HEIST: We have, I think, one of the parts of this book that I really liked is Dian Fossey's descriptions of what the gorilla sound like. So we have some clips. Thanks for the people at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The first one we're going to hear is what she labeled a pig grunt, and it's a sound made by the gorillas as a mark of annoyance or a warning to others to stop what they're going.


FLATOW: Well, I see if you don't pay attention at the beginning, they get a little louder.


HEIST: It's so much cuter than I had imagined though.

FLATOW: Yes. Doesn't sound that aggressive, really.

HEIST: Right.

Well, maybe if his father, you know, the 450 pound....


HEIST: ...silverback that was making that noise. We have another one also. This one is called the belch vocalization. She labeled this, I believe, as well, and it's an expression of wellbeing.

FLATOW: A belch - belch vocalization.

HEIST: We'll get that feeling, yeah.

FLATOW: Yes. We'll see if we get that feeling.


FLATOW: Very low. Annette, let me play it again, in case you missed and turn up your woofer on this one.



LICHTMAN: And that's friendly, right?

HEIST: Yes. That's like you're eating with one of your group members. You're both full, you're satisfied. You'll belch to each other.

LICHTMAN: And Dian Fossey learned to make this vocalization I think, when she would approach the gorillas in the field. She would make this sound or some version of it.

HEIST: She was great. She would try to get them to, kind of, accept her by making though the same sounds. So we have more of sounds on our website. Just go to sciencefriday.com. Look at the segment page for this - for today. We have those and some others, Gorilla Fund International.

FLATOW: You know what would always fascinates me, and it fascinates me the same way that other scientists are fearless in going out into the wild and living among these animals, you know, twice their size. You never know what to expect.

HEIST: Well, she was there - Well, I think she was also incredibly - I don't know if fearless is the right word, but ignored her personal safety, going and living by herself. And I think she's somewhat antagonistic of the people that were in the area, the people that had inhabited those places before her and, I think, put herself at risk. She ended up getting killed, as we know, in 1985, a couple of years after the book were written.

FLATOW: And we don't know who was responsible.

HEIST: Her murder was never solved. no.

LICHTMAN: She writes in the book that - she says: As a pioneer, I sometimes did endure loneliness, but I've reaped a tremendous satisfaction that followers will never be able to know. So, you know, you get the sense that she got out a lot of, you know, she says she gets a lot of satisfaction of blazing her own trail - literally, in this case.

FLATOW: And you get an impression from the book that she knew that this was an important piece of research she was doing and put all the details into the book, more than you would think a lay book had in it.

HEIST: Yeah. It's almost two books, one for the layperson, one for the gorilla researcher.

LICHTMAN: That's very scientific.


LICHTMAN: Which is actually fun because you get to participate in the science, along with Dian Fossey, I thought.

FLATOW: We're going to come back and take your calls. Diane Fossey's "Gorilla In The Mist." 1-800-989-8255. If you read it, we'd to know what thou think about it. It's been out, you know, decades now. Maybe you had a copy lying around. Also you can tweet us, @SCIFRI, S-C-I-F-R-I. Go to our website at sciencefriday.com. You listen to he sounds that we were just playing. We're going to take a short break, going to be right back after the break so don't go away. We'll see you after the break. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. we're talking this hour about gorillas in the mist. It's our SCIENCE FRIDAY book club. We're meeting -our regular meeting attendees, and they are Flora Lichtman, our correspondent and managing editor for video, Annette Heist, our senior producer, and, sort of, the lead reader on this book. Give us your hardest critique of this book.

HEIST: All right. I'm going to give two criticisms of this book and one has nothing to do at all with Dian Fossey, and that is that this reprint is horrible. I want someone to make another copy of hits book with better type face and better photographs.

FLATOW: It is hard to read.

HEIST: These are muddy photographs. They feel like they don't do these gorillas justice. And, OK. So that's my...


HEIST: (Unintelligible) complaining.

FLATOW: That was the tough one.

HEIST: I felt that about - for me it was about two-thirds of the way through. I felt like the chronology was the problem. She was going back and forth in time and talking - she moves back to describing the animal that she's already - that we've already been reading about and I felt like it was just getting to be a little confusing and I would've like some editing to, sort of, keep it all going in a linear way.

FLATOW: OK. Flora.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I mean, I agree. It reads more like a sort of scientific paper where you go through each study group as opposed to a story, but within each study group, you get a really nice arc to each one, which I liked. You know, she followed them for 10 years, so she sees gorillas that are babies and watches them grow up and becomes clearly attached to them. And when they're killed, it's a big problem for her.

HEIST: It's very sad. Sad parts of the book.

FLATOW: Let's go to Jim in Johnson City, Tennessee. Hi, Jim.

JIM: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

JIM: Well, when I read the book a long time ago, I felt like Dian Fossey was enamored and in love with just the gorillas themselves, which made me that way. And ever since I read the book, I have studied more than hers. So to me she - it wasn't a matter of fear or anything when she's living with them, she was so much in love with them that she wasn't afraid.

FLATOW: Good point. Annette.

HEIST: Yeah. I would agree with that, and I think maybe she went a little too far sometimes. This is from a review in the New York Times by Katherine Bouton. These are her words: Finally, she perhaps too often imputes emotions to the animal. They gaze pensively, they have worried looks on their faces, their foreheads furrow questioningly, and their lips contort into a nondescript smile. I mean, these are more than animals to her, and I'm not...

JIM: Right.

HEIST: ...saying that it made her research bad, but I do think that she might have seen something's that possibly weren't' there. And she did some things that I think are unorthodox. We have a gorilla expert coming up in a couple of minutes, but I mean, she slept with - she let them sleep in her bed with her and she touched them.

FLATOW: You don't mean sexually?

HEIST: No, no, no. Sorry. No. Just sleeping.

FLATOW: Right.

And fed them, which is not allowed anymore. But I felt at some points it was hard to know the lens that she was seeing them through - how that affected how she described them.


JIM: Yeah right. Well, I really, you know, if you see, people of today, who have the dogs and treat them with humanesque(ph). That's what Dian Fossey, probably, was doing.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. good point.

HEIST: Make them good. Make them very humanesque. And but - just her drive and her, well, her love for the study made me love it and that's what I've done, well, for the past 30 years myself.

FLATOW: Well, changed your life. Thanks for calling, Jim. Flora, did you want to read us a passage?

LICHTMAN: Well, there is this part that I think helps explain the tone of this book, and I think also, her dedication - Dian Fossey's deduction to the study. So she writes: (reading) It never dawned on me that the exhausting climbs along ribbons of muddy trail, bedding down in damp sleeping bags, awakening to don wet jeans and soggy boots and filing up on stale crackers would not be everyone's idea of heaven. And when she writes this, you think, oh yeah, that really is your idea of heaven. It's not - it's almost not a joke at that point in the book because she does - she never complains about really challenging conditions.

HEIST: Yeah. She's devoted. It's admirable.

FLATOW: And it's true of a lot of scientists. And a lot of people who go out, whether it's Louis Leakey who was out there, you know, was, I think, met her and - in the book and talked about - she talked about it a bit, or of people who take even extra chances. Now I'm blanking on - who is the guy who went out with the bears, the...

HEIST: Oh. Well, the Grizzly Man...

FLATOW: The Grizzly Man.

HEIST: The Werner Herzog movie was Timothy Treadwell was...

FLATOW: Right. He died out there also. But he took tremendous risks.

HEIST: He did.

FLATOW: And he talked so lovingly about the bears too.

HEIST: Yeah.

FLATOW: So it takes a certain kind of person to do that.

LICHTMAN: I wonder if we should bring in our next attendee.

FLATOW: Let's - you - Annette gave us a little taste of who that's going to be. At the end of "Gorillas in the Mist," which was written in 1983, the fate of the mountain gorillas is uncertain. Their population numbers were low. They were still falling victim to poachers. Dian Fossey, as we say, was murdered in Africa in 1985. So what became of her beloved gorillas since then? Joining me now to give us an update on the efforts to conserve the gorilla population is Annette Lanjouw. She is vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Great Ape Programs for the Arcus Foundation. Thanks for joining us today.


FLATOW: How long did you study the mountain gorillas?

LANJOUW: Well, I was the director of the International Gorilla Conservation Program, which works with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda for 15 years.

FLATOW: Wow, you really got to know them.

LANJOUW: I got to spend quite a bit of time with them. Yes, I did.

FLATOW: Yeah. Can you give us sort of an update on the mountain gorilla numbers?

LANJOUW: Well, the numbers have improved significantly since the time that Dian Fossey was working there and even since the time when I started there in 1990. When I started working with the mountain gorillas, there were 620 of them as a total world population divided by these three countries. And the most recent data that has come out is 880 mountain gorillas. So it's one of the very few ape populations in the world that is actually increasing.

LICHTMAN: Wow. What about the techniques for studying them? How have those changed since Dian Fossey wrote this book?

LANJOUW: There's been a lot of learning, obviously, since the '60s on different ways of dong behavioral research. In the early days, in the '60s when Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas and many of the Japanese researchers were working with apes and conducting the first long-term studies, it was common to feed the animals. And you mentioned that earlier in the program. You basically provided them with food in order to habituate them, and habituating means getting them used to human presence so that they no longer fear people and don't flee when they see humans.

And the idea is that if they are habituated, you can then observe their behavior. So it was thought at the time that the only way to get apes to become habituated would be to provide them with food. That isn't the case anymore. And we have learned that by providing them with food, you inevitably change their behavior. So actually you're influencing them in a way that means you can't actually observe their natural behavior anymore.

So over time, we've learned to habituate animals without providing them with any food and being as discreet as possible so that you really have a minimum of influence over their behavior. You never know, of course, 100 percent if you're going to be influencing them. You're there. They see you. They're curious. They're interested. So, you know, it's inevitable that there's going to be some element of influence. But certainly, not providing them with food made a big difference.

LICHTMAN: One thing that surprised me about Dian Fossey's book is that she interacts with them physically, like they - well, she'll put her head in their laps and they'll climb all over her. Do scientists refrain from doing that now? Or is that still OK?

LANJOUW: Well, it's not OK. I don't - I think most scientists certainly refrain from it. There are rules that have been established, particularly with mountain gorillas, to prevent people from getting too close. We looked at the risks of disease transmission between humans and gorillas, both - in both directions, from humans to gorillas as well as potentially from gorillas to humans. And because gorillas are so similar to humans - physiologically, anatomically - that they are prone to many of the same diseases that we are prone to, and yet they don't have many of the immunities that we developed from years of living in very dense urban environments. So they're very vulnerable to diseases that we might carry that we don't suffer from, you know?

So the potential of transmitting diseases from humans to gorillas could be devastating for gorilla populations. And so in order to protect them and to ensure that our presence isn't actually putting them at risk, there are very strict rules as to how close you can get and what appropriate behavior is in the proximity of gorillas.

FLATOW: So then what are the greatest current threats to gorillas now?

LANJOUW: The greatest current threats to mountain gorillas is probably, the first, is disease and habitat destruction. And then obviously the conflict in the region, the armed warfare that's been happening, particularly on the Democratic Republic of Congo side, is a huge threat to gorillas as well.

FLATOW: Poachers, things like that?

LANJOUW: Poachers, yes. People do go into the park to illegally hunt for food. They don't target gorillas for food. But they use indiscriminate hunting methods like the laying of snares and traps. And gorillas can get caught in those snares and traps. And so a number of gorillas have been lost due to their injuries from snare wounds.

There are obviously excellent medical doctors who are - there's a program, the Gorilla Doctors, who are actually out there to monitor and track and intervene when gorillas become either ill or injured due to human activity. They cannot intervene if it's natural. But if it's caused by humans, then they will intervene. And that is to protect the gorillas from the results of either snares or any other illnesses that could have been transmitted from humans.

LICHTMAN: Dr. Lanjouw, is "Gorillas in the Mist" required reading for anyone that wants to study gorillas?

LANJOUW: Oh, I think so. Yes, it's an excellent book and it provides such an enormous wealth of information. And it's also very important from a historical perspective because it really does provide you with an understanding of how much our learning has progressed over the years. And what the first encounters with gorillas revealed to the first researchers.

I mean, Dian Fossey wasn't the first person to study mountain gorillas. George Schaller was there before her and others have been there before her, but she certainly was the first to spend that much time and to do the long-term studies on mountain gorillas. And the wealth of information that she gathered is invaluable.

FLATOW: Are the people still studying them now?

LANJOUW: People are still studying the mountain gorillas. Absolutely. The International Gorilla Conservation Program is there. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is there, that you mentioned earlier. So there are a number of organizations that are still working with and studying the gorillas. You know, with all the apes, you can study them your entire life and still barely be scratching the surface.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking about "Gorillas in the Mist" with Annette Heist and Flora Lichtman. Also our guest is Dr. Lanjouw.

What still do we not know? What is the biggest unknown? I mean, we've been studying them for decades. You say we are learning new things. What would you like to know as - Annette Lanjouw, what would you like to know about gorillas that you don't know yet?

LANJOUW: You know, there's a lot that we don't know about the social relationships that they have, the way in which they formed socially - those social relationships and maintain them. The different interests that they have and different relationships that they form, the way in which they form alliances and cooperate at times, compete at other times, to have access to resources that they want or for males to have access to females that they want. Every individual gorilla is different. They're like humans in that respect. They have their own personalities and characters.

And so you can study a group and then study a different group and find completely different behaviors. And so it isn't a simple as just saying, well, I've studied these gorillas. I now know gorillas. It would be as simple as saying I've studied a group of five humans and I now know humanity. So by spending time with them, getting to know the individuals, the relationships between the individuals and the choices that you make - that they make - sorry - you learn to understand more about their characters, their personalities and how those evolve over time.

FLATOW: I have one last call I can get. Let's see, we go to the phone. Carol(ph) in La Grange, Kentucky. Hi, Carol.

CAROL: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. Since I already knew about Dian Fossey's murder, I was very sad reading the book because I felt that perhaps as a woman that the reporting about her was somehow prejudiced (technical difficulty) online. I saw so much about, oh, how she was so difficult and almost as though she - it was her fault that she got murdered, and that she had these problems with the community. I wonder what's your experts have to say about her treatment because she was a woman scientist.

FLATOW: Annette Lanjouw?

LANJOUW: Well, it's an interesting question. You know, I think there is truth in the fact that - and I probably shouldn't even admit to this myself, but people who spend many, many years on their own working in these kinds of conditions, the conditions that you were describing earlier in the program, you have to be a little bit difficult. You have to be a little bit ornery to do that kind of work. You have to have enormous confidence in yourself and that you are right, and that this is the right thing to do. You have to be tough to be able to stick it out. You have to be able to handle the loneliness and the difficult conditions. So, yes, she probably was a bit difficult. And I imagine most people who do this kind of work - and probably myself included - are a bit tough and difficult at times.

Whether or not she was particularly singled out as a woman, I don't know, but I know that there were a lot of very, very difficult situations that she had to confront. And I also know that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to separate your emotional attachment to the animals and the work that you're doing from what's happening and trying to remain scientific objective and sometimes rational.

And, yes, she made some mistakes. She handled some things badly. I think a lot of people would have had in those circumstances. Gorillas that she had come to know and consider as her friends were murdered and murdered senselessly, and that must have been absolutely heartbreaking for her.

FLATOW: Dr. Lanjouw, thank you for taking time to be with us today. Annette Lanjouw is vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Great Apes Program for the Arcus Foundation. She is also co-author "Mountain Gorillas: Biology, Conservation, and Coexistence." Thank you again. Have a good weekend.

LANJOUW: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: And that wraps our Book Club. Do we have another book pick - yeah, we're going to be working on?

HEIST: Not yet.

FLATOW: Pick it up. Annette Heist and Flora Lichtman, thank you...

LICHTMAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...as always for doing our book club.

HEIST: Thank you.

FLATOW: And I want to thank The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International for the gorilla sounds and the photo of Dian Fossey. You can see that on our website.

HEIST: We also have pictures from a book that Dr. Lanjouw co-authored with Gene Eckhart of gorillas on our website. Go there, look at those pictures. They're great and enter our winter nature photo contest. Don't forget.

FLATOW: Nature photo contest, also Video Pick of the Week, cockroaches grooming. Don't want to miss that one.


LICHTMAN: Don't miss that one.

FLATOW: Oh, it's a good one. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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