Brilliant Careers: If she could talk to the animals

Before Jane Goodall went to Africa, almost nothing was known about chimpanzees. Sitting alone in the wilds day in and day out, she won their trust -- and taught mankind about its closest relatives.


Douglas Cruikshank
March 24, 1999 12:19AM (UTC)

"Doctor!" he cried, "I've just had a message from a cousin of mine ... They
have heard of you, and beg you to come to Africa ..."

-- Chee-Chee, the monkey, reading a message delivered by a sparrow
from "The Story of Doctor Dolittle," by Hugh Lofting (1920)

By the time I was 10 or 11, I had read all of the Doctor Dolittle
books, and watched most of the old black-and-white Tarzan movies several
times over. During those years I also carefully perused National
Geographic each month for the same reason as every other boy my age:
half-dressed native women. The photos of naked natives were a thrill,
but it was the pictures of an ethereal-looking, fully clothed English
woman surrounded by chimpanzees that ignited my first crush.

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Unfortunately, things never really went anywhere with Jane Goodall and
me. I wrote her a letter suggesting that I visit her (during which we'd
presumably marry) just as soon as I finished fifth grade, but at the
time the logistics of posting mail to the other side of the world were a
bit more than I could manage. Now, decades later, it's a comfort to
learn that we did share something: Our attraction to animals and life in
the wild came from the same sources. "Even when I was very tiny,"
Goodall remembers, "I was absolutely fascinated by animals. I think I
first began to dream of going to Africa after reading Tarzan and Doctor
Dolittle."

Like Hugh Lofting's good doctor, Jane Goodall answered a calling, which
she has continued to answer for nearly 40 years. In so doing she's led
one of the 20th century's more remarkable lives, while becoming its
most famous conservationist and the leading authority on chimpanzees, as
well as the author of several books, including the classic "In the Shadow
of Man." Stephen Jay Gould wrote that her research on chimps "represents
one of the Western world's great scientific achievements." Yet her
departures from conventional science have been as important as her
contributions to it.

Her story is almost a legend. Born in London and raised in Bournemouth,
England, Goodall financed her first trip to Africa in 1957 with money
she earned working as a waitress. While there she arranged to meet Dr.
Louis Leakey, the celebrated paleontologist and anthropologist. He was
so impressed with Goodall's knowledge of African wildlife that he hired
her on the spot as his assistant secretary. Soon after, during an
expedition to Olduvai Gorge, they began discussing a study of the
chimpanzees that lived near Lake Tanganyika, and the sort of person
Leakey had in mind to undertake such research. "I want someone unbiased
by academic learning," he said. "Someone with uncommon patience and
dedication."

By 1960, Goodall was ready to establish a research camp at Gombe Stream
Chimpanzee Reserve (now Gombe National Park) in Tanganyika (now
Tanzania). In an autobiographical sketch on the Jane Goodall Institute Web
site
, she recalls her feelings at the time: "My childhood dream was as
strong as ever ... to watch free, wild animals living their own, undisturbed
lives. I wanted to learn things that no one else knew, uncover secrets
through patient observation. I wanted to come as close to talking to
animals as I could." And off she went.

Or so she thought. In fact, there was a hitch -- the first of many. The
government authorities would not permit her to live in the remote area
without a European companion. That was resolved, however, when another
dauntless Goodall -- Jane's mother, Vanne -- offered to accompany her
daughter for the first few months. The two then received news of a
squabble among the local fishermen at Gombe and were asked to delay
their arrival. No sooner were they cleared to proceed than they were
again delayed, this time by an outbreak of violence in the Congo across
Lake Tanganyika from the town of Kigoma. As daughter and mother waited
in Kigoma for the rioting to subside in the Congo, the expense of a
hotel depleted Jane's funds and they were forced to economize by camping
on the grounds of the local prison. "Not as bad as it sounds," Goodall
recalls, "since the grounds, which are beautifully kept, overlook the
lake and at that time of year the citrus trees all around were groaning
under the weight of sweet-smelling oranges and tangerines. The
mosquitoes in the evening were terrible, though."

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Maybe they were the same ones that brought the malaria to Jane and
Vanne, or perhaps it was the mosquitoes at Gombe, which, after
overcoming a host of other obstacles, they finally reached. In any case,
the preceding doesn't begin to inventory the challenges Goodall faced
before and after arriving at the reserve, but we do start to get a sense
of just what an uncommon character she is: preternaturally optimistic,
gently tenacious, a singular combination of toughness and tenderness,
patience and perseverance, that has everything to do with what she was
about to achieve.

Today, it's easy to see that Goodall belongs in the pantheon with other
intrepid souls -- Louis Leakey, Albert Schweitzer, Mary Kingsley come to
mind -- but at the time, well, imagine it: She was a 26-year-old English
girl (as she refers to herself then), she'd completed a secretarial
course, but had no other academic credentials (later she would be one of
just eight people in the history of Cambridge University to receive a
doctorate without first taking an undergraduate degree). She had a small
grant that Leakey had arranged, but with the notable exceptions of her
mother and Leakey, no confidence from any quarter that she had the least
chance of success.

The locals were suspicious of her and the chimpanzees didn't exactly
welcome her with open arms. And let's not even get started on the
leopards wandering hither and thither, the cobras slithering around her
feet (literally) and the recurring fevers. To make matters worse, the
regional wildlife authorities, who believed that chimps were extremely
dangerous creatures, insisted that she be joined by an escort on her
forest walks, which doubled the chances of frightening off the shy
primates she hoped to observe, increasing the likelihood of her
failure. Needless to say, the smart money was not riding on Goodall's
making a go of it.

Nevertheless, into the wilds she went and there she sat and sat and sat,
day in and day out, "trying to overcome the chimpanzees' inherent fear
of me, the fear that made them vanish into the undergrowth whenever I
approached ... That I did not fail was due in part to patience: I sat on
open ridges, observing through binoculars, not trying to get too close,
so that the chimpanzees gradually got used to seeing me."

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Patience schmatience, let's face it, Goodall is cut from different cloth
than the rest of us. You and I go to pieces when we run out of
half-and-half and must use 2 percent milk in our morning mocha java;
we come undone when the cell phone battery goes dead. Goodall typically
started the day before sunrise with a slice of bread and a cup of
coffee, and wouldn't eat again until returning to camp in the evening, a
regimen that soon eliminated her escort. She then climbed her favorite
peak, from which she could see the two valleys the group of chimps
frequented. As she sat there all day long in the same spot in the
African heat, wearing the same neutral colored clothing, the chimpanzees
became used to the benign if odd creature that was now part of the Gombe
landscape.

Gradually, Goodall moved closer to the group. But more than six months
would pass before the boldest of the chimpanzees -- David Graybeard, to
whom she dedicates "In the Shadow of Man," and his pal, Goliath -- finally
let her get nearer than 1,500 feet. It happened by accident as she walked
out from behind a fig tree: "Less than twenty yards away from me two
male chimpanzees were sitting on the ground staring at me intently ... I
waited for the sudden panic-stricken flight that normally followed a
surprise encounter between myself and the chimpanzees at close quarters.
But nothing of the sort happened ... Very slowly I sat down, and after a few
more moments, the two calmly began to groom one another ... I could almost
hear them breathing ... this was the proudest moment I had known. I had been
accepted." Over the succeeding months and years, as the entire group
let her move closer still, she followed them on their daily travels
through the forest, and as she did she made one breakthrough discovery
after another.

Many of Goodall's observations -- made widely available over the decades
through her books, National Geographic articles and television
documentaries -- are now more or less common knowledge, but before she
went to Gombe almost nothing accurate was known of chimpanzees. It was
Goodall who discovered that chimps make and use tools, fashioning twigs
to lift termites out of their mounds. It was Goodall who saw them
construct nests each night in the treetops where they slept (she
sometimes curled up in the nests herself after the chimps had left). It
was Goodall who found that, like Homo sapiens, with whom they share 98
percent of their genes, chimpanzees use weapons, hunt and are meat
eaters, though their diet is largely vegetarian. She also was the first
to document their complex family relationships and emotional
attachments, and the meaning of their facial expressions and calls.
Goodall discovered as well that chimps share mankind's darker traits:
One group may attack another over a sustained period of time, and
although it's rare, she witnessed instances of cannibalism.

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Her achievements and the duration of the research, which has never
really ended, would be remarkable regardless of Goodall's methods, yet
her methods are what distinguish her. To the extent that it was
feasible, she studied the chimpanzees of Gombe on their terms. She came
as close to them as she could, interrupting their lives as little as
possible, while participating as much as she was allowed. Indeed, in
direct opposition to prevailing scientific practice, she developed an
emotional relationship with them. She didn't number them, she named
them. She virtually moved in with them, and once they'd accepted her,
they were regular visitors to her camp. She aided them as best she could when a polio epidemic swept through the group, and has otherwise devoted her life to
preserving theirs. Yet she never lost her scientific discipline and keen
intellectual rigor.

More remarkable still, in the midst of it all, Jane Goodall has had a
life of her own, with the ups and downs of any life.
She's been married twice. First to wildlife photographer and filmmaker
Baron Hugo van Lawick, with whom she has a son, also named Hugo,
nicknamed "Grub" (he's now in his 30s). And then to Derek Bryceson, a
member of the Tanzanian parliament and director of national parks, who
died in 1980, just five years after their marriage. She is a prolific
author and lecturer, and today travels almost constantly, speaking out
on behalf of chimpanzees, conservation and kindness to animals. Much of
her work is with children.

In writing about Jane Goodall it's nearly impossible not to produce a
hagiography, so why try? Her life has been exemplary, to say the least,
and continues to be. She is one of those extraordinary individuals who
seems to have known almost since childhood what she wanted to do, and
has pursued it relentlessly with intelligence, good humor and
a degree of hope that approaches religious conviction. Her point, all
along, has been a simple one: "Given the dramatic similarities in
physiology between ourselves and chimpanzees," she writes in her most
recent book, "Visions of Caliban," "particularly similarities in the brain
and central nervous system, it seems absurd to suppose that the emotions
underlying [our] similar behaviors are not themselves similar."

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Chimpanzees and other animals, she suggests, are not dimly conscious
demicreatures, but sentient beings whose emotional lives are highly
complex and may resemble our own more than we care to admit. What we're
beginning to grasp, however, thanks largely to Jane Goodall, is that the
human drama is not the only significant one on the planet, and that our
lives may be more inextricably, irrevocably, entwined with animals than
we have ever acknowledged.

Late one night, not long ago, I happened to see one of the old Tarzan
movies,
one that I'd seen several times as a boy: "Tarzan and his Mate,"
made in 1934 with Maureen O'Sullivan in the role of Jane. And it
occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, it had something to do with that
letter I wrote way back in the early '60s. I wonder if Goodall, wherever
she was that night -- in an airport hotel in Dallas or Boston, or staying
with friends in Los Angeles or Seattle -- might have also watched that
movie? If so,
this bit of dialogue, from a scene in which one of Jane's suitors and his friend are
trying to convince her to return with them to England, may have amused
her:

Harry: Don't you ever miss the fun you used to have?


Jane: I have fun.


Harry: Those June nights in England ...

Jane: Moonlight on the Thames.

Harry: Dance, glass of champagne, sitting with real people and listening
to the music.

Jane: Real people? I wonder.

Arlington: Well, at least the men are civilized.

Jane: Does that make them any better?


Douglas Cruikshank

MORE FROM Douglas Cruikshank

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