Annual Meeting

October 10-13, 2002

Pasadena, California


"Merde!": Coprophagy, Conservation, and Colonialism in Gorillas in the Mist
Marie Lathers
Department of Modern Languages and Literatures
Case Western Reserve University

--To this very day, civilization's ambivalence toward shit continues to be marked, on the one hand, by a will to wash those places where garbage collects (ie, in the city and speech) and, on the other, by a belief in the purifying value of waste-so long as it is human. (Laporte, 37)

Roland Barthes famously stated "when written, shit does not smell." Writers, most notably Rabelais and Swift, have rid culture of the odor of feces by writing about it, and this appears also to be true of postcolonial writing. At least one contemporary critic, Joshua Esty, has determined that postcolonial Anglophone African writing is characterized by what he terms "postcolonial excrement"; excrement proliferates in the texts of Wole Soyinka and Ayi Kwei Armah; its presence underscores the divided self of the protagonist and the division between him and the new nation. I want to build on this work by reading postcolonial excrement in light of feminist theory, on the one hand, and, on the other, recent work on species as a category-animal theory. What happens, I ask, when postcolonial excrement is produced not by humans, but by animals-in particular non-human primates who walk the divide between nature and culture, animal and human? What happens when these animals, in this case the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, also inhabit the colonial/postcolonial divide, as well as inhabiting the divides between nature and science; action and theory; extinction and conservation; and private (the isolation of the individual) and public (tourism-individuals clustered in groups). There is an assumption in articles such as Esterhazy's that the protagonist, the excremental actant we might say, is a black African male. What might we conclude, however, when the shit is dung, and when it is displaced onto, into and out of the bodies of the white western woman and the (especially) male gorilla, both fighting to establish their space in the Francophone African jungles of the 1960s and 70s?

Dian Fossey, born in 1932, was an American who studied veterinary science and then worked as an occupational therapist with children. She first went to Africa in 1963 on safari, and then returned in late 1966 to establish the Karisoke Research Center, a center that had the double goal of studying and preserving (conserving) the mountain gorilla of Rwanda, a small nation that had recently won independence from Belgium. When Fossey returned to the United States for a visiting stint at Cornell University in 1980, her biggest fear, she later admitted, was that she would forget to flush the toilet. The disposal of feces defines, this anecdote reveals, the border between nature and culture, jungle life and academic life. And this border was flushed from the body of woman, the white primatologist who made her way to Africa not for overt political reasons but to become intimate friend and protector of the mountain gorilla-a species not known for flushing toilets.

Both Fossey's 1983 book Gorillas in the Mist and the 1989 film of the same name, directed by Michael Apted, may justifiably be re-titled Shit in the Mist, for gorilla waste is both a recurring object and a repeated verbal enunciation in these accounts of Fossey's work. (And it is not lost on us here that "mist" in German means fertilizer drawn from excrement). In the written document, Fossey analyzes gorilla dung; in the film, she repeatedly utters the word "shit." In the written text-part memoir, part scientific record-"dung" is a sign of the non-human primate: gorilla waste allows Fossey to find the animals, identify their patterns of movement and eating, and identify causes of death. In the film, "shit" is pronounced when Fossey is exasperated, and this word typically signals a cut to a new scene.

In this paper I examine these two uses of excremental vocabulary: as written word (in the text), "dung" stands in for the scientific, the statistical, the animal, the trace of the primate tracked by Fossey; as verbal utterance (in the film), the term evokes the difficult situation of the white woman in the jungle, and labels her a foul-mouthed woman with guts (if not bowels) (in addition to cursing, she smokes, drinks, and sleeps with a married man). Moreover, the term is used in the film to evoke the refuse of colonialism, or rather, the excremental colonialism that infects a seemingly "post" colonial Rwanda. If indeed written shit does not smell, it would appear to be the work of Fossey's book to cleanse the postcolonial state by focusing on the author's beloved animals, rather than on the quite shitty lives of the humans around her. (Fossey famously wrote "This book is about gorillas, not people.") The film, in turn, inscribes "shit" as a verbal utterance in order to veil, again, the considerable political turmoil surrounding Fossey. In both cases, although differently, "shit/dung" masks as it signals a postcolonial excrement that is dependent on the collusion of speciesism, racism, and sexism.

First, the written, scientific, use of the term "dung." The reader of Gorillas in the Mist learns that gorilla dung is useful in the tracking of the animals: "I found it helpful during the early days of the study to return to camp with fresh dung specimens and vegetation discards and then record their aging process under various weather conditions. Repetition of this simple procedure soon improved my ability to gauge the age of trails accurately" (45-46). Dung may also help solve the mystery of a gorilla's death: "The men and I hauled knapsacks full of dung back to camp after having first bagged, labeled, and dated each individual's nest deposit. We then began the tedious chore of straining every lobe of it at Camp Creek . . . Only after a week of dung washing did we begin to find minute slivers of bone and teeth that were definitely known to come from the night nests of Effie and her eight-year-old daughter, Puck." Fossey thus suspected cannibalism on the part of Puck and Effie (77-78).

Dung is also at issue in the practice of gorilla coprophagy, or dung-eating, one of the two practices in modern zoos that seem most to interest and repulse human spectators of non-human primates, the other being the protruding red buttocks of female chimpanzees. Coprophagy is explained by Fossey as an indicator of nutritutional need: "The silverback then reached back to catch two lobes of his dung before they hit the ground and sat down to eat both with lip-smacking gusto. To young Kweli this seemed far more interesting than all the frenzied sexual behavior taking place nearby. (Coprophagy allows the absorption of nutrients not available in plant matter.)" (198). The eating of dung also characterizes rest behavior: "The dung of lactating females is often covered with a whitish sheath, possibly a result of the tendency gorilla mothers have to eat the feces of their offspring during the infant's first four to six months of life . . . All age and sex classes of gorillas have been observed eating their own dung and, to a lesser extent, that of other gorillas. Coprophagy is most likely to occur after prolonged day-resting periods during the rainy season, when both feeding and travel time are minimized. The animals simply shift their buttocks slightly to catch the dung lobe in one hand before it contacts the earth. They then bite into the lobe and while chewing smack their lips with apparent relish." And, finally, coprophagy reveals a connection between gorillas and humans-both may at times eat feces: "The eating of excrement occurs among most vertebrates, including humans, who have certain nutritional deficiencies" (46).

Next, the verbal, or cinematic, use of the term "shit." In the film, shit is a sign not of science but of history-the history of colonialism, and the attempt to rewrite this history in the postcolonial period. It thus occupies the space of culture, whereas dung occupies that of "nature" (reinterpreted, of course, as science, or conservation). Fossey utters "shit" in four scenes of the film, and "merde" in one. These five scenes all come during the first half of the film. The first two utterances are substitutes for the use of "dung" in the book: "shit" is an effect of the tracking of gorillas, Fossey's first task. First, Fossey exclaims "shit!" when her tracker Sembegare reveals that he in fact knows nothing about tracking gorillas. Soon thereafter, she falls down on a trail, and says, passing from annoyance to delight: "shit! . . . I sat in shit . . . oh, my God, it's gorilla spore!" The discovery of gorilla shit (not "dung") by the white woman thus allows her to begin to track gorillas; it also allows her to pass this knowledge on to the native tracker. She is, here, using the word in a "scientific" manner. [SCENES 1 and 2]

The third time Fossey says "shit" is when the Batwa, a local native group, discover her and Sembegare in their burial area. Here the term is an exclamation of potential problems to be brought on by the crossing of sacred boundaries, by the incursion of the West into native burial grounds. [SCENE 3] In our next scene, Fossey switches to the French, uttering "merde!" The use of French signals to the spectator, and to the "natives" surrounding her-represented by Sembegare-, that she can say the word "shit" in the language of their Beligian colonizers. Sembegare and Fossey find traps that the Batwa poachers have set, and this prompts her vulgar utterance. [SCENE 4] The use of the French here is quite odd, however. Although the viewer learns early on that Fossey is fluent in Swahili, a language that is basically useless to her in the jungles of Rwanda, there is no indication in the film, beyond this utterance, that she speaks French, although at one point she appears to be speaking Kinyarwanda, the local language, to some children. That merde is the only French term used by Fossey in the film is extremely telling. In part, it is quite "natural" for Fossey to use the French term-she is in a Francophone country. French would be a more useful language to know than Swahili in Rwanda and the Congo, and Fossey did have to know some French in order to navigate the post-colonial murky waters of conservation. But the utterance of "merde" is the only indication we have of Fossey's fluency in French; it is significant for this very reason-this is the central term of the film, and the central sign of the animal nature of the gorillas and their tie to the primatologist, as well as the status of colonial powers still at work in Africa.

Shit/merde represents the link between the following three bodies: the white woman, the French-speaking, and thus shit-speaking, native of the Belgian ex-colony, and the gorilla, who speaks by injesting his own excrement. Shit ties the verbal to the visual, culture to nature, human to animal, the prehistorical (or a-historical) to history, the inner to the outer body, the colonial period to the postcolonial. It is a shifter that facilitates the work of the primatologist in the jungle, work that is at once scientific (theoretical and detached) and activist (concrete and "attached"). Whereas Karla Armbruster has identified coprophagy as an activity that distinguishes gorillas from humans, the verbal coprophagy (merely) suggested in the film ("you piece of shit" could easily become "eat shit") links the human to the animal, as eaters of merde.

We come then to the connection between the colonizer and Fossey's use of the term ("you piece of") "shit." There is only one moment in the film when the work "shit" is not used by Fossey as an exclamation to express her surprise or frustration. Fossey learns that a German zoo representative has absconded with a baby gorilla after killing its family members. She rushes to town, finds the sorely mis-treated baby Pucker in a van, and then in a fit of rage storms into a European restaurant. When she finds Claude Van Vecten-who speaks fluent French, by the way-she screams at him: "You piece of shit. Bastard." [SCENE 5] "Shit" here is not a scientific term used to note the daily wanderings of the gorillas, nor is it used as a swear word to express frustration. Van Vecten is a piece of shit because he is a coloniser (of gorillas) and this scene is an indication that in the late 1960s and 1970s, colonialism, in the form of European zoos that housed African animals among other forms, was still in full swing. The association between animal dung, the nests or homes of the gorillas, the colonial language of French, and the European procurer of zoo animals is concentrated on the female body, as it utters the crude term, one which represents, literally, the state of her life and the state of the state (of post-colonial Africa).

Finally, I want to briefly discuss the actual uses of excrement by Dian Fossey the woman, that is, the place of shit in the narrative of the woman who represents the conjoining of animals (through conservation) and nation (through colonialism). As James Krasner has noted: "One of the crueler truths about the way in which Fossey's story has played itself out in popular media is that her status as a scientist has been eclipsed by her role as heroic madwoman confronting the primitive . . . While [Donna] Haraway sees Goodall as a representative of western science, Fossey's very scientific activities (her isolation, her physical deprivations, her administrative authoritarianism, her physical interaction with the gorillas) become representations of antiscientific, irrational behavior, evocative of witchcraft, obsessiveness, madness" (245). It is known, for example, that one of the techniques used by Fossey to punish African animal poachers, was to smear their bodies with gorilla dung (Hayes 33); sometimes Fossey would shout obscenties in English, French, German, and Swahili while doing so (Hayes 297). One of her graduate student researchers claimed that she also "injected" poachers with gorilla dung, or at least, that she claimed to have done so (Montgomery 223). While caring for the young Coco and Pucker, Fossey slept with them and sometimes awoke covered in their diarrhea, the result of illness brought on by their capture (Hayes 209). Fossey's own failing body is a final example of a body characterized by shit. While in Rwanda she treated her rotting teeth with "an African concoction called dawa, which [she said] looked like a mixture of merde and vacuum-cleaner fillings" (Hayes 190-91). Yet another link between gorilla shit and the human is the offering of human feces to gorillas, on the part of the graduate students whom Fossey disdained: "In the latter part of 1978 she had been infuriated to discover that one of the Karisoke researchers was in the habit of defecating while with gorillas and permitting the animals to smell and even eat the feces" (Mowat 337). Finally, as noted earlier in this paper, Fossey feared that she would forget to flush the toilet in the States-that she would forget how to dispose of her own feces in "civilized" society.

Dian Fossey used excrement in her quest to turn scientific (theoretical) detachment into active conservation. She wished, one might propose, to turn written shit into verbal shit, and attempted to achieve this by writing on native bodies with gorilla dung. "This book is about gorillas, not people." Fossey writes about gorillas, just as she wrote onto the poachers with, shall we say, "gorilla ink." Thus, as Armbruster has pointed out, "Fossey actively constructed a relationship between herself and the gorillas that transgressed the socially constructed boundary between human culture and nature" (216). She ate gorilla shit by rubbing it in the faces of the colonized.


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