dieter art main hor

Photo: Jacob Chinn

Hanging out with gorillas, sometimes in the mist, and hiking six hours up and down steep mountains in an African rain forest to find them would constitute an exotic summer vacation for many. But for H. Dieter Steklis, it’s just part of a professor’s job — and a chance to visit family, of a sort.

The mountain gorillas are almost like cousins, he says, genetically close relatives from whom we humans can learn about ourselves. And he’s known them well, generationafter generation, from visits to Rwanda with his wife, researcher Netzin Steklis.

Dieter observes how gorilla fathers interact with their young and weaves that into his class curriculum on fathers and families at the UA’s Frances McClelland Institute.

The Steklises take about 16 students, mostly from the UA, to visit the late Dian Fossey’s research groups of gorillas in the Virunga Conservation Area in Rwanda. They accept only those who pass physical tests includinghikes up Mount Lemmon. “If you’re not strong and you get a cold or sniffles of any kind, you can’t go near the gorillas,” says Netzin, who is a UA research specialist and adjunct faculty member. “They don’t have our natural defenses. If we spread something to the gorillas, that’s not good.”

As the summer unfolds, the Steklises take the group camping in the African grasslands, staying a safe distance from black mambas, elephants, baboons, and crocodiles. He reminds all that a hippopotamus can charge. “You don’t walk up to one. It’s not like a zoo,” Dieter says. “It is shocking that 90 percent of the students have never been camping in their life,” he continues. “We are studying primate social behavior but they also have to learn to wash their clothes.”

On their way to seek out the gorillas in 10,000-foot-high terrain, the group spends three days in Kigali, the capital, learning about culture and history, including the massacres of Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, and visiting the genocide museum.

The class will observe savannah baboon troops, vervets, chimps, and grey cheeked mangabeys, watching for actions that parallel human ones — affiliative (friendly) and agonistic (fighting) behaviors, grooming, nurturing. “Back on campus, they’ll still be noticing affi liative behavior, postures, gestures,” Dieter says. “This is a month of becoming keen observers of nonverbal behavior.”

He adds, “These are first steps in an awareness that will last the students’ whole lives.”