Insert Comma logo
Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Not quite Tarzan’s Jane

Manual High students go ape over Goodall

By Leigh E. Rich

Though she’s on the road more than 300 days a year, renowned ethologist, conservationist and the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees never leaves home. She brings it with her, in mind, in spirit … and in a long, gold pendant that hangs beside her heart.

A petite, soft spoken Brit nearing 70, Dr. Jane Goodall carries Africa around her neck—or, well, a miniature replica of the “dark continent” she’s called home since 1960. She has her reasons for these long absences from the Gombe Game Preserve in Tanzania, where she has lived with and studied chimpanzees for the last 40 years.

“I left the jungles that I love to save the jungles that I love,” she said in February while speaking with freshmen at Manual High School in Denver. Goodall, a guest of the Denver Distinguished Lecture Series, visited the Mile High City to promote her educational Roots and Shoots conservation program and inspire young students to believe that “every single one of you makes a difference every single day.”

It’s no exaggeration to say Goodall is a living legend. Growing up in modest circumstances during WW II, Goodall adored animals—especially her dog, Rusty—and spent her English childhood days reading adventurous yarns about Dr. Doolittle and Tarzan.

“I fell passionately in love with Tarzan,” this Jane says, recalling her belief that Tarzan’s counterpart of the same name was “wimpy.” “I thought I would be a much better mate for Tarzan. I dreamed of going to Africa, living with animals and writing books about them, and everybody laughed.”

Everyone, that is, except her mother, whom Goodall credits for her four decade success in Africa. Goodall’s message for the Manual students—and her message for youth worldwide, whom she says “have become disheartened about the future”—reiterates her mother’s unconditional support and words of wisdom: “If you never give up, you will find a way. Don’t give up your dream.”

Goodall’s dream was far from realistic as a young woman. In her early 20s in the late 1950s, before women had unlimited career options, she completed a secretarial course and began working when an opportunity arose for her to visit Africa. She received a letter from a school friend, who was then living in Kenya.

Taking another job as a waitress, Goodall worked until she saved enough money to “set off on this amazing adventure, an adventure that’s still continuing today.”

Through fortunate connections and perhaps a bit of happenstance, Goodall’s African friends would be the crucial turning point in fulfilling her lifelong goals. “They said, ‘Jane, if you like animals, you must go and meet Louis.’” Louis Leakey, that is, the famed anthropologist and paleontologist who, with his wife Mary, is credited with the discovery of many fossilized hominid remains and a clear trail of ancient footprints preserved in volcanic ash at Laetoli in Tanzania.

The Leakeys, who visited the Serengeti plains and Olduvai Gorge every summer, gave Goodall a job. “But in those days, [Olduvai Gorge] wasn’t famous,” she explains. “There was no road, no track or trail. It was a quiet, untouched Africa.”

One evening, Goodall recalls, she and a colleague, taking a casual stroll around the encampment, bumped into a young, male lion. “At that age, lions are very, very curious. And he followed us. It was a little bit frightening” and, for this would-be Doolittle herself, quite exhilarating. “That’s when Louis found the researcher he was looking for” to study Africa’s chimpanzees.

Leakey, interested in understanding human origins and the lives of our possible precursors, sought in-depth knowledge of the great apes—the mountain gorilla, the orangutan and the chimpanzee—because, Goodall says, “behavior doesn’t fossilize.” The behavior of these animals, as windows into the lives of hominid populations long past, had never been scientifically studied in their natural habitats.

At the age of 26, Leakey sent Goodall to Tanzania to live among the chimpanzees, Dian Fossey to Rwanda to study the mountain gorilla (recounted in “Gorillas in the Mist”) and Birute Galdikas to Borneo for a closer look at the orangutan.

Leakey was criticized by some of his contemporaries for sending academically untrained women to the field, who would all later become pioneers. But he had his reasons, it is rumored, some of which include beliefs that women would pay more attention to detail and that intense academic training might bias observations and results.

“‘Leakey’s Ladies’ we used to be,” Goodall laughs when asked about her counterparts.

Social protocol at the time also frowned upon a young, single female living in the jungles of Africa alone, and Goodall couldn’t set sail for Tanzania without a chaperone. She happily traveled with her mother, who established a small clinic in the area. “My mother cared about people. She became known as a white witch doctor.”

And thus began the now well known story of Goodall’s inroads into the lives of Gombe’s chimpanzees, who eventually grew accustomed to this hairless, “white ape” imitating them and following their every move.

In 1965, after five years at Gombe, Leakey encouraged Goodall to obtain her PhD in ethology from Cambridge University, more as a matter of convention than necessity to continue her work. Goodall speaks less passionately about this first major absence from the chimpanzees she grew to love and recounts the criticism she received from colleagues.

They were appalled she had given the chimpanzees names, she says. “I should have given them numbers. It would be more scientific. Not only that, I talked about their personalities and emotions. I was talking about chimpanzees as having minds and reasoning,” and using intelligence to solve social problems. “But that was wrong in those days … only humans have reasoning.”

At times even today, Goodall’s critics have accused her of endowing these creatures with humanistic traits beyond the scope of scientific evidence. But the diminutive Goodall stands her ground, opining that the line between humans and chimpanzees is “very blurry. Chimpanzees are like us in so many ways … and act similar to humans in many of the same situations,” like kissing and tickling one another. “And they quite clearly mean the same thing.”

In her years at Gombe, Goodall has witnessed orphaned chimps adopted by others, illness and suffering, lifelong mother-child bonds and vicious displays of brutality. “This illustrates how much alike humans and chimpanzees are,” she says. “There isn’t a sharp line between humans on the one hand and chimpanzees on the other. I know I’m looking into the eyes of a thinking, feeling being. We share memories.”

This is the purpose of her Roots and Shoots program, now in 60 countries around the world. Aimed at younger generations, Roots and Shoots projects enable youth to show “you care about animals, about your own community, and about the environment that we all share,” according to Goodall.

Roots and Shoots, along with her Gombe research, “teaches us a new respect for that line between humans and all animals. It’s teaching us humility. It’s not who we’re related to. It’s how we are going to live together today.” 

Rich, L. E. (2001, April 6). Manual High students go ape over Goodall. Intermountain Jewish News.

Comments are closed.