Dian Fossey Google Doodle Honors Gorilla Expert

Today would have been her 82nd birthday.

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National Geographic Society / AP

Primate expert Dian Fossey sits with mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains in Rwanda in 1982.

Correction Appended, January 16, 2014

Today’s Google Doodle honors American zoologist Dian Fossey (1932-1985), who was a leading authority on mountain gorillas in Africa.

The San Francisco native started out as an occupational therapist working with disabled children. But in 1963, she traveled to eastern Africa and met anthropologist Louis Leakey, who introduced her to mountain gorillas. She was intrigued, but returned to her job in America to pay off the bank loans for the trip. Leakey flew to the U.S. to convince her to move to Africa and study the primates. And, to test her commitment, he recommended she get her appendix removed because medical facilities were far, according to Fossey. Feeling guilty, he backtracked, but she got the appendectomy.

She started living among mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1966. But when a civil war broke out, a “rather daring escape to Rwanda was made in a truck named Lily with two pet chickens, and a pistol hidden in a box of Kleenex,” TIME reported in 1983.

(PHOTOS: The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda)

Nicknamed “Nyiramachabelli” by Rwandans, meaning “the woman who lives alone on the mountain,” Fossey explained her strategy for relating to the primates in National Geographic:

I discovered that these powerful but shy and gentle animals accepted and responded to my attentions when I acted like a gorilla. So I learned to scratch and groom and beat my chest. I imitated my subjects’ vocalizations (hoots, grunts, and belches), munched the foliage they ate, kept low to the ground and deliberate in movement—in short, showed that my curiosity about them matched theirs toward me.

Her favorite was Digit. In 1977, poachers decapitated him, and Walter Cronkite announced the death of the beloved primate on the CBS Evening News. Fossey founded Digit Fund, now the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. To raise awareness about conservation efforts, she wrote Gorillas in the Mist in 1983, detailing her 13 years of research.

And she was so dedicated to campaigning against poachers that, “in 1980 she reportedly abducted the child of a local woman suspected of stealing a baby gorilla, then offered to exchange hostages,” per a 1986 TIME article.

Fossey was found dead at 53 on Dec. 26, 1985, mysteriously hacked to death by a machete at her base camp in the Virunga Mountains. She was buried in a graveyard that she established for the bodies of gorillas.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the purpose of the graveyard where Dian Fossey was buried. It was for gorillas.

PHOTOS: LIFE Goes on a ‘Gorilla Hunt,’ 1951