Coprophagy, Conservation, and Colonialism in Gorillas in the Mist
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
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"
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
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
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"
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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