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Dian Fossey, defender of gorillas, gets birthday doodle

Dian Fossey, a naturalist who chronicled her life among the gorillas of Rwanda in the book "Gorillas in the Mist," was honored Thursday with a Google Doodle. 

Her work with what she called "the greatest of the great apes" helped to recast the 400-pound gorillas as gentle giants desperately in need of protection from poachers. 

In the doodle you'll notice a close up of a gorilla's nose. Fossey used gorilla's individual "noseprints" to help identify them. 

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Fossey was 6 feet tall, a San Francisco native and a chain smoker. She never married and had no children. She worked briefly as an occupational therapist in California and Kentucky before moving to Africa in 1966 to study gorillas full time. Much of her work was funded by the National Geographic Society. 

She originally set up camp in what is now the Congo, but after just eight months, she was forced to flee because of political unrest. 

She set up her second camp, known as the Karisoke Research Center, in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda in 1967. A year later, she was featured on the cover of National Geographic with some of the gorillas she studied, and she became an international celebrity.

To become accepted by the gorillas, Fossey mimicked their behavior and sounds -- walking on her knuckles and scratching herself for example. Eating celery rather noisily, she found, also helped draw them out.

In 1970, she decided to pursue a doctorate in animal behavior from Darwin College in Cambridge, England. She finished her degree in 1974.

Over time, she developed deep relationships with the gorillas, especially a male she called Digit because he had damaged one of the fingers on his hand. Ten years after their friendship blossomed, he was killed by poachers as he defended his pack. 

Fossey was a believer in what she called "active conservation," which means actively going into the forest day after day to try to catch poachers and cut down their traps.

In several interviews, Fossey admitted that she preferred the company of the mountain gorillas to that of humans.

"Gorillas are almost altruistic in nature," she once said. "There's very little, if any, 'me-itis.' When I get back to civilization, I'm always appalled by 'me, me, me.'"

In another interview she said: "I have no friends. The more you learn about the dignity of the gorilla, the more you want to avoid people."

In 1985, just a few weeks before her 54th birthday, Fossey was found slain in her small cabin at the Karisoke Research Center. Her killer has not been found, but she was laid to rest in a gorilla grave, near the animals she loved. Thursday would have been her 82nd birthday.

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