SUBJECTS — The Environment; Science-Technology; World/Africa;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Caring for Animals; Courage; Human Rights; Romantic Relationships;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Respect; Citizenship.

AGE; 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for adult situations and violence;

Drama; 129 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.


One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s list of the ten best movies to supplement classes in Science, High School Level.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


“Gorillas in the Mist” tells the inspiring yet tragic story of Dian Fossey. With virtually no training, Fossey became one of the world’s foremost primatologists. She was the first person to record the social structure of African mountain gorillas, interact with them, and form strong affectionate bonds with separate individuals. Gradually, Fossey moved from fascinated observer to passionately aggressive conservationist, determined to protect “her” gorillas at all costs. Acting almost alone, she saved them from extinction. Today the mountain gorillas are still threatened by habitat destruction, but their numbers have increased. Fossey brought their plight to the attention of the entire world, making an enormous contribution to the animal protection and ecology movements.


Selected Awards:

1989 Golden Globe Awards: Best Actress (Weaver) and Best Original Score; 1989 Golden Globe Awards Nominations: Best Picture (drama); 1989 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actress (Weaver); Best Screen Play; Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Screenplay adapting materials from another medium.


Featured Actors:

Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey, Bryan Brown as Bob Campbell, Julie Harris as Roz Carr, John Omirah Miluwi as Sembagare, Iain Cuthbertson as Dr. Louis Leakey, Constantin Alexandrov as Van Veeten, and Waigwa Wachira as Mukara.



Michael Apted.


“Gorillas in the Mist” is an excellent and motivating introduction to primatology, gorillas, and Africa. The movie recreates the wonderful scene in which Fossey becomes the first human being to affectionately communicate with a mountain gorilla in the wild. The movie shows how one person protected an entire species of magnificent animals from extinction.

The movie also shows the dark side of Dian Fossey, how her utter devotion to the cause of the gorillas, combined with isolation and frustration, ultimately led her to use abusive and extreme tactics. “Gorillas in the Mist” is an excellent study in the nature and risks of obsession.

The movie can also serve to interest children in the “trimates,” Fossey and two other women who became identified with the study of the great apes. They are Jane Goodall, who studied the chimpanzees of Tanzania, and Birute Galdikas, less widely known, who did the same for the orangutans of Borneo. Each of these women conducted pioneering research and forged almost miraculous connections with individual animals.


SERIOUS. Fossey takes up with a married man and neither of them show any remorse. See discussion question on fidelity in this film. The movie contains scenes of Fossey and her friend hugging and kissing, in bed after making love and in a bath together. No “objectionable” body parts are shown, being hidden by clothing, bed clothes or water and suds. There are gory views of massacred gorillas and a scene in which Fossey psychologically tortures a child caught while accompanying his father on a poaching mission. Fossey shows no respect for others when she is provoked. After Digit, her favorite gorilla, is decapitated by poachers, Fossey subjects one to a mock hanging and burns huts in the poachers’ village. She is also shown breaking into a van carrying captured animals to seize a captive baby gorilla legally purchased by a trader for a zoo in Europe. Garden variety profanity occurs on about ten occasions in the film. There are also some distortions of the historical record but the essential elements are accurately presented. See Note on Historical Accuracy in the Helpful Background Section.


Allow your children to enjoy watching this sensitive and determined woman interact with gorillas and after the film is over ask them what animals they would want to work with, were able to get to know animals in the wild. What do they think it would be like to meet their chosen animals in the wild? Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Questions.


Dian Fossey was born in Fairfax, California, in 1932. By her account, her childhood with her mother and stepfather was not a happy one. She was always drawn to animals, and, in adolescence, especially to horses. Denied her dream of veterinary school because of her grades, Fossey graduated from San Jose State with a degree in occupational therapy.

She moved to Louisville, Kentucky (close to horses) to take a job at Kosair Crippled Children’s Hospital. Fossey felt the same attachment to needy children as she did to animals: “… All are much younger than their years and are like wild animals penned up with no hope of escape…. They need a tremendous amount of care and kindness to make them feel life is worth living.” Fossey approached her charges quietly, sometimes seeming to ignore them as she silently kept them company and allowed them to get comfortable with her presence at their own speed. She transferred this technique to her work with gorillas with impressive success. Quotation from The Importance of Dian Fossey by Jack Roberts, p. 21

Inspired by tales of friends in Louisville, she decided to make a trip to Africa, borrowed money, and set off for the “land of my dreams.” After meeting Louis Leakey and his wife Mary at their research center, she ended her journey with a visit to the Kabara meadow, and had her first sighting of the mountain gorillas. She was never the same again. She later explained: “It was their individuality combined with the shyness of their behavior that remained the most captivating impression of this first encounter with the greatest of the great apes.” Leakey, always on the lookout for good workers, recruited her for the study of the mountain gorillas. (The opening scenes of the film are inaccurate in this respect.) Quotation from The Importance of Dian Fossey by Jack Roberts, p. 29

Acquaintances who witnessed Fossey’s descent into erratic and cruel behavior (toward people) in her later years thought she had gone mad. Some thought the murder of Digit unhinged her. Actress Sigourney Weaver, who studied Fossey’s life to prepare for the role said, “I don’t think she really lost it… Her friends who loved her dearly sometimes thought she was acting crazy, but crazy with a small ‘c.’ … She was desperate. The government wasn’t supporting her. Her own scientific community wasn’t supporting her. She didn’t have anyone with whom she was sharing her life to balance her, no one to say, ‘Well, Dian, here’s another way of doing it.'” Quotation from The Importance of Dian Fossey by Jack Roberts, p. 84

Throughout her tenure in the Virungas, Dian Fossey was plagued by abysmal living conditions, ill health, and erratic and sometimes non-existent funding. Dian was overjoyed when she sold the rights to Gorillas in the Mist to Universal Studios in 1985 for $150,000. She used the money to keep up the anti-poaching patrols and maintain her camp. She was killed later that year.

Weaver’s experiences in making the movie affected her so profoundly that she became the honorary chairperson of the Digit Fund, since renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. She hopes that the film will help complete Fossey’s work in making the world aware of the imperiled, magnificent mountain gorillas.

The Rwandan government charged an American doctoral student, Wayne McGuire, with Fossey ‘s murder, perhaps to hide the identity of the true killers. He escaped to the U.S. Most people believe that he was not the murderer. Fossey was buried next to her beloved Digit and among the other gorillas she had cared for. Along with flowers, mourners brought plants the gorillas loved to eat and threw them on her coffin. At the memorial service for Dian Fossey at the National Geographic offices in Washington D. C., Jane Goodall eulogized: “I don’t think it’s too much to say, if Dian hadn’t been there, there might be no mountain gorillas in Rwanda today.”

Politics of the African Gorilla Habitat: Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon

Resource-poor Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. In spite of a horrific series of genocidal wars in the 1990s that killed nearly a million people, and led to a mass exodus of refugees, population pressure on the habitat of the endangered gorillas remains high. Preservation of gorillas in these areas is inextricably entwined with improving the lives of the local populace and making sustainable agriculture and eco-tourism beneficial to them. Most experts believe that the only way to save primates and other wildlife is to employ Africans to do so.

Uganda was notorious in the 1970s for the murders of approximately 400,000 citizens under the despotic regimes of Idi Amin and his successor. Reforms led to economic progress in the early part of this century, but insurgent groups, armed gangs, and government forces continue fighting in the Great Lakes region bordering Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC, formerly Zaire), the home of the mountain gorillas. The DROC has been embroiled in a violent civil war since 1997. The Ugandan and Rwandan governments have supported their warring ethnic groups inside the DROC. In 2002, the various factions agreed to end the fighting and set up a government of national unity.

Gabon, teeming with wildlife and home to many lowland gorillas, has been able to maintain its ecosystems in pristine condition due to a relatively small population, and relatively high-income levels. In 2002, President Bongo mandated the creation of a 13-park national parks system which could make Gabon an ecological paradise. See Saving Africa’s Eden, National Geographic, Sept. 2003, p. 50.

In September of 2002, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the Congo Basin Forest Partnership (CBFP) Initiative. The goals of the internationally funded project are to promote economic development, alleviate poverty, improve local governance, enhance conservation and reduce illegal logging and poaching in the area. The area covered by the initiative includes the countries of Gabon, Congo, DROC, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon.


The great apes are the mountain gorillas, lowland gorillas and chimpanzees of Africa and the orangutans of Sumatra (Indonesia) and Borneo (Malaysia and Indonesia). They are commonly estimated to share more than 95% of their genes with a man. The chimps and gorillas are genetically more closely related to humans than to orangutans. One study concluded that chimps have DNA that is 99.4% the same as ours and that they should, therefore, be reclassified in the genus homo along with sapiens! Whether reclassified or not, the great apes are the closest animal relatives to man.

In 1929, a researcher found what he thought was the skull of an unusually small chimpanzee, but it was a subspecies, the bonobo, (or pygmy chimpanzee). Bonobo society is female dominated (unlike those of the other great apes), extremely social, peaceful and sexual. The bonobo, with its long legs, smaller head, and shoulders, looks more hominid than ape-like.

Some suggest our human ancestor, Australopithecus, might have resembled the bonobo. Bonobos are more closely related to humans than they are to gorillas. Their range is limited to the South Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC). They might be the rarest of our relatives and certainly are the most mysterious. An extremely engaging website for students is presented by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative.

Louis B. Leakey. Dian Fossey observed, counted, and championed the protection of the mountain gorillas of the Virunga (Volcanoes) Mountains. As the movie underscores, these animals are highly endangered. There are two principal populations of mountain gorillas, totalling approximately 650 individuals. The lowland branch of the gorilla is less threatened, comprising approximately 80,000 individuals. They range from Nigeria to the Congo River. But sporadic outbreaks of Ebola have killed a few thousand of these gorillas in the Congo and Rwanda since 2000. They are threatened by the bushmeat trade, and habitat destruction due to farming and logging. The eastern lowland gorilla lives in the DROC. Some researchers now count the mountain gorillas as a subspecies of the eastern lowlanders. East and west lowland gorillas are separated by about 1,000 kilometers. The United Nations’ Great Ape Survival Project provides an outstanding overview of current information about gorillas and other primates. It also describes the urgent initiatives that have been organized to save them from extinction. Children will also enjoy the website by Action for Apes.

Jane Goodall was Louis Leakey’s first, and famously successful experiment in sending a female who was not a scientist into the field to study primates. Goodall’s very likable personality and work with the Gombe Stream chimpanzees in Tanzania enabled her to become the human face and voice for primate conservation. She started her research in 1960, six years before Dian Fossey. Her discovery that chimps fabricate tools in the wild forced scientists to redefine the differences between humans and great apes. In 2001, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi-Annan appointed Jane Goodall a Messenger of Peace. In 2003, she was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. The same year, Harvard University Medical School gave her its Global Environmental Citizen Award.

Jane Goodall’s approach to conservation was quite different than Fossey ‘s. Like Fossey, Goodall inspired others with her commitment to saving a species. But where Fossey used fear and force against the poachers and those who used animals for their own profit, Goodall used kindness and a positive attitude, proactive but not confrontational. When faced with actions which endangered or hurt chimpanzees she cajoled, shamed, and won the hearts of those she needed to influence with kindness. An excellent example of her positive attitude was demonstrated when she visited a primate medical research laboratory in the U.S. Their chimpanzees were kept in small metal cages in appalling conditions. Instead of tearing the lab apart, Goodall brought toys to the captive chimpanzees and shamed the medical researchers.

Birute Galdikas’ work with the orangutans of Borneo was also sponsored by Leakey. She seems to have taken a middle path between Fossey and Goodall She was a 25-year-old anthropology student at UCLA in 1971 when she traveled with her husband to photograph and observe the primates in their native habitat. She became a foster mother to many of the orphaned animals and raised her own child with them. In order to remain in Borneo, she divorced her husband and gave him custody of their son. She has fought fiercely against the depredations of loggers and poachers to save the orangutans (Malay for “people of the forest”). Galdikas is currently married to a tribal president and has Indonesian citizenship. She teaches at a university in Vancouver but spends at least six months a year in Borneo. (For an updated dispatch on the orangutan’s perilous situation, see “Orangutans Hang Tough; Code Red,” National Geographic, October 2003, page 76.)

The “trimates” have been extraordinarily persuasive advocates for the endangered great apes. If the gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans are saved from extinction, the world will owe a debt of gratitude to these three women and the legions of supporters and researchers they inspired.


Fossey, Goodall, and Galdikas owed their opportunities to one man, preeminent paleoanthropologist, Dr. Louis B. Leakey. Born to British missionary parents who were attempting to convert the Kikuyu people of Kenya, Leakey built his own hut and was initiated into the tribe at age 11. His first language was Kikuyu. He said that he dreamed in it, and he used it to fulfill his foreign language requirement at Cambridge University. No one contested his mastery since he was the only expert speaker there. He considered himself fully African and was once called “the black man with a white face. This paragraph paraphrased from The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey by Harold T.P. Hayes, pg. 64.

Like Charles Darwin before him, Leakey believed that the earliest ancestors of man would be discovered in Africa because the monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees are found there. He and his wife Mary established a research station at the Olduvai Gorge, which cuts across the Serengeti Plain in northern Tanzania. There they found the remains of a hominid they named Australopithecus africanus robustus, and, at a lower level in the Gorge, a hominid Leakey named Homo habilis (“handy person”).

Leakey believed his find was the earliest toolmaker, thus the ancestor of modern man. Amazingly, the discoveries implied that Australopithecus and Homo habilis lived at the same time. The groundbreaking research in Africa persuaded scientists that the ancestors of the great apes and the ancestors of humans diverged about four to seven million years ago, not 500,000 years ago as earlier believed. Recent discoveries have shown that the family trees of the monkeys and the great apes had actually branched off from each other 16 million years earlier!

Although Leakey’s early career was rocky, his persistence and creative thinking eventually led the scientific community to respect and build on his work. He was a prolific author and ardent conservationist who believed that the great apes are the living link to our human ancestors. His son Richard carries on the effort to preserve animal populations. He successfully fought to turn back the illegal poaching of elephant tusks for the ivory trade.


The DNA of the great apes and man are 95% the same. Parts of our bodies are similar and some are even identical. Great apes have depth perception because, like man, they have binocular vision. They rely on their sense of sight and have lost much of their sense of smell. Their hemoglobin is identical to that of mankind and they die of the same diseases such as intestinal troubles, lung infections, and polio. This paragraph paraphrased from Watching the Wild Apes, Bettyann Kevles, page 11.


Gorillas are largely “folivorous.” They eat primarily the stems and leaves of a plant, not the fruit. They never eat all the leaves of a single plant, but rather leave enough for it to regenerate quickly. The seeds they scatter in their dung (as they travel) help to propagate plants, supporting the local ecosystem.


Only captive gorillas eat meat.


Gorilla fathers are more involved with raising their offspring than any other primate (except humans!).


The mountain gorillas were not discovered until 1902 by the explorer von Beringe; thus their scientific name, Gorilla, gorilla beringei.


The gestation period for a gorilla baby is about 9 months; the same as for a human. The mother carries the baby in a protected frontal position for several months. Silverback gorillas can weigh up to 400 pounds.


Koko, the western lowland gorilla who was taught a 1,000-word sign language vocabulary and understands 2,000 words in spoken English, has her own foundation, The Gorilla Foundation Website. The foundation is building a 70-acre sanctuary/educational center on Maui, which will be the first preserve outside of Africa for tropical gorillas.


There are no surviving mountain gorillas in zoos. They do not adapt well to captivity.


The film departs from the true record of Fossey’s life almost from the first scene (Fossey had met Leakey once before his Louisville lecture, in Africa, and he asked her to consider taking on the job; she didn’t have to beg), but so did Fossey ‘s own accounts! Many people who knew her to say that the reminiscences in her book, Gorillas in the Mist, were reshaped to fit the picture she had of herself, and the story she wanted the world to believe. However, all the essentials of her life with the gorillas, and its pivotal moments are caught in this movie version. They might be compressed, personalized, or altered for dramatic effect – for example, it was an infant gorilla named Peanut who reached out and clasped her outstretched hand, not her adored Digit. But Digit did come and put his arm around her once or twice, as related in her memoir.

The dynamics of Fossey’s affair with Bob Campbell were exaggerated in the movie; It was an earlier boyfriend who importuned her to come down off the mountain and go home with him. Campbell never did, and never had any interest in divorcing his wife, though his personal and professional association with Dian lasted for many years. He was devoted to her efforts and thought that her situation was much more difficult than Jane Goodall’s.

Fossey used the services of an experienced tracker, Sanweke. His counterpart character in the movie, Sembagare, develops a close personal friendship with Dian. He voices the reproach that devoted workers must have felt as Fossey’s behavior towards people worsened, but in the film, Sembagare maintains his loyalty and respect for her work.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

[No suggested Answers.]


2. What did Dian Fossey mean when she said: “Gorillas don’t know borders; they don’t need passports”?

Suggested Response:

Gorillas cannot be contained or restricted by political boundaries. They live in biosystems, or biomes, which can range over several countries.


3. Explain how the study of gorillas will answer Dr. Leakey’s quest to “know who I am and what it was that made me.”

Suggested Response:

The great apes are the closest animal relatives to human beings, sharing some 95% of our DNA. Human beings and the great apes branched off from a common ancestor four to seven million years ago. By going back up the evolutionary tree and finding out what we have in common with these animals, we will know more about ourselves.


4. What does the fact that gorillas don’t know borders mean to the efforts of conservationists?

Suggested Response:

Regional cooperation in preserving habitat and fighting poaching is essential. Wild animal groups cannot usually survive in isolated pockets; the necessity of exchanging genes with other communities of the same species and the ability to adapt to drought or other climactic changes mean that they must be able to range over wide areas. Conservationists stress the importance of wildlife corridors, which allow animals to travel between large areas of suitable habitat. See the reference to the Congo Basin Forest Partnership under Politics of the African Gorilla Habitat.


5. Would Dian Fossey have been more successful in protecting the mountain gorillas if she had adopted a softer, more cooperative approach? Could she have avoided her own murder?

Suggested Response:

Possibly. Fossey alienated many people with her furious verbal and sometimes physical assaults. What if she had sought not only to restrain poaching, but to also give the Batwa another way to make a living? Nevertheless, she provided invaluable, detailed information, inspired many with her dedication, and illuminated the plight of the mountain gorilla, whose appealing nature and importance she broadcast to the entire world.


6. Before he found Fossey, Louis Leakey told people he was looking for a “gorilla girl” to do the type of work he’d secured for Jane Goodall. Was Louis Leakey’s belief that women would make better observers of primates than men sexist? Was it accurate? Plug into your discussion the following facts: Some of the other women he had backed earlier didn’t work out. His instincts worked well in his choice of the three “trimates.” Other dedicated people, both men, and women have followed in their footsteps. On the other hand, a woman (her scent, actually) might be less threatening to a silverback, the patriarchal leader of a gorilla family. After all, we share almost all of our DNA with gorillas.

Suggested Response:

We suggest no right answer. The point is to get the class discussing the issue of what is sexist and what is a legitimate recognition of differences between men and women.


7. What are the measures that conservationists stress to preserve endangered populations of animals in impoverished areas?

Suggested Response:

Jobs as park rangers, park guards and guides are the first defense. It must be in the economic interest of the people to save the animals. In addition, economic assistance to develop sustainable farming and developing employment relating to ecotourism industries (jobs in hotels, restaurants, tour companies, travel agencies, etc.) are necessary in areas with any substantial population.


8. Can burgeoning human populations and wild animals coexist?

Suggested Response:

The ultimate answer to conservation is population control or a radical change in the way that people live and support themselves.



1. Should humans engage in heroic efforts to save primates and other wild animals from extinction?

Suggested Response:

Yes, otherwise we are alone in a human crowd and part of nature will be irretrievably lost. The great naturalist Loren Eisley wrote that we are drawn to wild creatures because of the “long loneliness” we have endured since our lives diverged from those of the other animals. Secondly, we will lose the opportunity to study a living link with the human past, the great apes. As a young Congolese traveling with Fossey whispered, awestruck, when he saw his first gorilla, “Surely, Lord, these are our relations.” (Watching the Wild Apes, Bettyann Kevles, pg. 153) Finally, there is a moral obligation when extinctions are the result of hunting, harvesting or habitat decimation caused by mankind. The ethical pillar of Respect and various ethical precepts of the world’s religions (e.g., God made the environment and all its creatures, mankind cannot kill off a species made by God without offending God) require men to prevent extinctions of animal species whenever possible.


2. What do you think of singer/songwriter Peter Gabriel’s statement, “We forget, most of the time, that humans are Great Apes”? What, if anything, would we lose if they became extinct?

Suggested Response:

See answer to preceding question.



3. Some people have commented that Fossey ‘s life required courage. What was the most courageous thing that she did? Can you think of examples of people that you have known who have had the courage to do this or something like it?

Suggested Response:

There are several possible correct answers. We lean toward leaving her career, family and friends and to go and live virtually alone in a forest among an alien people, as her most courageous act.



4. Was Fossey right to psychologically torture a young boy to find out who killed some gorillas?

Suggested Response:

No. It was not a choice between torturing the child and allowing the gorillas to be massacred. There were other, perhaps more difficult, ways to find the poachers and perhaps, this time, she would have had to let go of her anger and concentrate on preventing the next occasion. Psychologically torturing a child was a violation of human rights.


5. Fossey had noble aims but used harsh means to achieve them. Did her ends justify her means?

Suggested Response:

The answer is always that the ends never justify torture, abuse of children, burning homes etc. Fossey exceeded the bounds of morality when she did these things.



6. Can you explain how Dian Fossey had the highest morality when it came to gorillas but at the same time could take up with a married man and mentally abuse a child, burn homes and the like? Do these facts change your evaluation of her great achievement in saving the mountain gorillas from extinction?

Suggested Response:

Unfortunately, people are compartmentalized. They can be models of the way people should behave in some ways but not in others. Some people who are moral throughout most of their lives have lapses at times. Fossey’s methods diminish the luster of her achievements to some extent, but she didn’t kill anyone, she didn’t maim anyone, and saving a magnificent species from extinction puts us all in her debt.


See also the discussion question under the Ethical Emphasis Section entitled “Trustworthiness”


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.



(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)


1. There is one area of Dian Fossey’s life in which she did not live by the Trustworthiness Pillar of character. What was it and what do you think about it?

Suggested Response:

Taking up with a man she knew to be married is participating in his cheating. One can understand how Dian Fossey, on a mountain alone for long periods of time, would have a strong need for companionship. Her employees were not a consideration for her, and properly so, because as employees they were in a subordinate power relationship. However, the test of morality is restraining yourself from doing something that you want to do (or making yourself do something that you don’t want to do) for the sake of a principle that applied universally is beneficial. This is a very difficult choice for many people in situations similar to that of Fossey and her male friend. The need for human contact and warmth is so important. The basic concept of affection is giving of yourself. It is often hard to see that giving of yourself could be wrong. But there were other ways for this couple to deal with the situation, i.e., for the man to be honest with his wife before the relationship progressed, for Fossey to look elsewhere for a sexual relationship, and for the couple to limit their relationship to being friends until the man had squared things with his wife, etc.



(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults and disagreements)


2. What is the ethical concept that is the basis for the movements to protect and conserve species of wild animals?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this but the one we prefer is “respect.” “Caring” and “self-interest” also enter into the equation, but “respect” is the most important concept. Animals that are not magnificent or lovable, for example, the fly, the mosquito, the grub, the earthworm, or the vulture, are still deserving of respect because they are our fellow creatures in nature. Many people have especially fond feelings for our near relatives, the great apes. The grub, the earthworm and the vulture are important to various ecosystems and it is in our self-interest to keep them doing their important work. Caring would lead most people to do more to save the great apes than to save the fly or the ant, but these species are still our fellow creatures in nature. There are, of course, limits and respect should not degenerate into self-destruction, e.g., populations of mosquitos carrying malaria need to be exterminated; flies in a house or restaurant can carry germs and need to be killed or removed.



(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)


3. What does the life of Dian Fossey tell us about the importance of the citizenship Pillar of Character?

Suggested Response:

Dian Fossey’s life is an excellent example of how we are all dependent upon those good people who give to their communities (in this case the world). We all benefit because Dian Fossey saved the mountain gorilla from extinction.


4. Is it necessary to violate the rights of others in order to change the world?

Suggested Response:

No. There are thousands of examples of people who have changed the world without violating the rights of others. Gandhi is one example and, in the field of conservation, Jane Goodall is another. Certainly, it could be said that these people went to extremes in some ways, but they didn’t trespass on the rights of others. It may be that in her situation, trying to deal with aggressive poachers, that Dian Fossey had no choice but to violate the rights of the poachers. We don’t know the situation well enough to say. But it is important to state that there are successful examples of other approaches being used in other situations.


Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

  • Write a paper answering any one or a group of the Discussion Questions set out above.
  • Give a class presentation, singly or in groups, responding to any of the Discussion Questions set out above.
  • Locate homo sapiens and the great apes in a scientifically recognized classification system for species of animals. Scientists have disagreed over these classifications. They modify and elaborate on them frequently. Research the latest findings on the Internet. Make it a true family tree shape, with drawings and photos.
  • Fill in a country map of Africa, including the lakes and mountains of the gorilla habitat area. Color the ranges of the mountain, and eastern and western lowland gorillas. Locate the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve.
  • Find a zoo in your area with a primate habitat. Visit the exhibit and write a report on one of the following topics answering each of the questions which follow: (a) Animal Observation Topic: Observe the animals for one hour; take notes on the behaviors you see: play, eating, mating, grooming, nursing, etc. Based on your observations are the apes bored or just resting? Are the family bonds evident? (Orangutans in the wild are usually solitary and not social; perhaps their behavior will be different in a zoo.) Do the animals interact with the zookeepers? or (b) Evaluation of Zoo Habitat Topic: Answer the following questions: How adequate is the habitat to the needs of the animals? How would you grade the zoo on meeting these needs? Are improvements planned? How does the zoo educate its visitors about the animals? Does it have any conservation projects or engage in field research? Does the zoo have a captive breeding program? How successful is it?
  • Stage the following scene: Fossey, Goodall, and Galdikas are in competition for a ten million dollar grant to pay for the study of a great ape species. Each must make a short presentation to a panel of grantmakers on why the study of “her” apes is needed most by the scientific and conservations communities. Be creative with the outcome!
  • Research the breakaway of the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra from the geographic cradle of the primates, Africa. Why and when did it happen? Find the best scientific hypothesis. If there is none, create one! Check up on the breakup of the great continent, Gondwanaland.
  • Plan an eco theme park for Rwanda, Uganda, and the DROC. In your planning, you must answer the following questions: How would you protect the gorillas and other animals? How would you introduce environmentally friendly tourism? How would you provide jobs? Design brochures and publicity materials for the tourism project.
  • Investigate the status of the Koko Foundation’s West Maui Ape Preserve. Is it feasible to create a sanctuary for the critically endangered mountain gorillas outside Africa?
  • Another class or family project would be to adopt a gorilla through the Dian Fossey Gorilla International Fund based in England. It costs $50 per year.


Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey, 1983, The Importance of Dian Fossey, Jack L Roberts, 1995, (recommended for middle school readers); Watching the Wild Apes, Bettyann Kevles; The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey Harold T.P. Hayes (recommended for mature students).



To create this Learning Guide we consulted the books listed in the Bridges to Reading section, the websites which are linked in the Guide, and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine.

This Learning Guide was updated on August 11, 2010.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.


What would it be like to be the first person to establish communication with a member of a species of wild animals?

Suggested Response:

There is no one right answer to this question. A good answer should evoke the wonder of the event, the concept that communication between species breaks through the isolation of humans from other animals and affirms the unity of all forms of life.


Dian Fossey opposed bringing tourists to the area because it would compromise the pristine nature of the forest in which the gorillas lived. She fought the local populace, threatening them, scaring them, kidnapping their children. But she was committing crimes against the local people. She was probably murdered by someone who was angered by her actions. Was there a better way to protect the gorillas?

Suggested Response:

Yes. Within a week after Dian Fossey’s death, her graduate students were making a deal with the government to protect the gorillas and set up environmentally conscious tourism in the area. They tourism would bring money which would improve the lives of the local inhabitants and give them a stake in the protection of the gorillas. This, in fact, came to pass and, in the genocidal wars in the 1990s when almost a million Rwandans died, only one gorilla was killed. (He was mistaken for a human being in the jungle in the dark.) Both sides recognized that after the war they would need the income from ecotourism. Now the gorillas’ numbers are increasing, and carefully regulated ecotourism supplies the money that is the incentive to protect the gorillas.


Dian Fossey opposed bringing tourists to the area because it would compromise the pristine nature of the forest in which the gorillas lived. She fought the local populace, threatening them, scaring them, kidnapping their children. But she was committing crimes against the local people. She was probably murdered by someone who was angered by her actions. Was there a better way to protect the gorillas?

Suggested Response:

Yes. Within a week after Dian Fossey’s death, her graduate students were making a deal with the government to protect the gorillas and set up environmentally conscious tourism in the area. They tourism would bring money which would improve the lives of the local inhabitants and give them a stake in the protection of the gorillas. This, in fact, came to pass and, in the genocidal wars in the 1990s when almost a million Rwandans died, only one gorilla was killed. (He was mistaken for a human being in the jungle in the dark.) Both sides recognized that after the war they would need the income from ecotourism. Now the gorillas’ numbers are increasing, and carefully regulated ecotourism supplies the money that is the incentive to protect the gorillas.


safari (old Swahili verb meaning “to travel”); ceased, census, innoculation, porters, tracker, provisions, specias, extinction, mimic, proximity, priorities, digit, congeniality, silverback.

“[Dian Fossey] was far more extreme than the picture the movie presented. She was far more of a personal mess! The adult version of this would be: She was emotionally unstable. She was an alcoholic. She had emphysema from chain-smoking. She was a hopeless romantic, which is normally great except when you’re living in the middle of nowhere. All of which left her being kind of a mess. She was also doing all the stuff that was portrayed in the movie: mock executions of local people and the kidnapping of their children.” Interview with Dr. Craig Stanford


  • Born Free;
  • “Search for the Great Apes” produced by National Geographic, featuring footage of Dian Fossey with the gorillas and Birute Galdikas with the orangutans; strongly recommended as a companion piece to “Gorillas in the Mist.”
  • “Among the Wild Chimpanzees” produced by National Geographic, featuring Jane Goodall in her pioneering study of the chimpanzees of Africa; and
  • “Jane Goodall: My Life with the Chimpanzees” produced by National Geographic.


Search Lesson Plans for Movies

Get our FREE Newsletter!

* we respect your privacy. no spam here!

Follow us on social media!