Jane GoodallJane Goodall, who celebrates her 78th birthday this week, has a lifelong record of groundbreaking work with chimpanzees in Africa. But all that began in a very small way.
As a child in London, the researcher was given a plush chimpanzee by her father. Goodall loved the gift, but her mother's friends worried, she later wrote, that the toy "would frighten me and give me nightmares." Instead, it prompted a passion for animals. Today, more than six decades after that gift, the little chimp, named Jubilee, is still one of Goodall's most precious belongings.
She went on to think of the chimps she studied in the same affectionate way, and that's been both her strength and her weakness as a lifelong champion of these animals that are too often mocked, ignored or brutalized-and may be on the edge of extinction.
Today, Goodall's passionate advocacy for animals and conservations makes her one of the most important global figures in the larger environmental movement.
Goodall got her start in the late 1950s by contacting Louis Leakey, a well-known Kenyan paleontologist, who was looking for a researcher to study chimpanzees. (Like Dian Fossey, who studied gorillas in Rwanda and was later murdered by poachers, Goodall was a brilliant amateur in the group of women known as "Leakey's Angels.") After studying in London for two years, Goodall was sent in 1960 to Gombe Stream National Park in what is now Tanzania.
Her first two discoveries were significant: that chimps are not vegetarians (from her observation peak, she saw them eating a baby bush pig) and that they can make and use tools (two of the chimps stripped the leaves off stems to make a kind of fishing hook that caught termites living in a mound.) Those two characteristics led experts to see the chimps as much closer to human beings than previously thought.
But another element in her research was more controversial. Goodall, who consistently observed the same chimps, gave each of them a name, like Goliath, David Greybeard, Frodo and Fifi. That went against one of the main rules in her field: Researchers traditionally designated the animals they were observing by numbers in order to maintain objectivity. Goodall refused to fall in line: "It is a fallacy that you can't be empathetic and objective at the same time," she told an interviewer. "Of course you can. It's simply a question of discipline. It is how science should be taught."
Goodall's up-close observations (the chimps allowed her to get nearer to them over the years) of the group's benign interactions led her to think that "chimps are nicer than we are." Not true, she learned. "Time has revealed that they are not," she said. "They can be just as awful." In the 1970s, Goodall witnessed a bloody "civil war" among the tribe she was observing.
Critics said that was due to another bit of unorthodoxy, the feeding stations Goodall had installed so she could more easily observe the chimps. That, her detractors said, essentially led to a distortion of normal chimp behavior as the animals fought over easily available food. Goodall's supporters countered that aggressive behavior had been seen in other chimp groups that didn't have any feeding stations. In any case, the argument continues.
But what's uncontested is that through her speaking and writing in later years, Goodall has brought an unprecedented focus to chimps in Africa and to our attitudes toward animals in general.
The statistics on wild chimpanzees are sad and scary: There were about one million chimpanzees at the turn of the century; today there are an estimated 172,000 to 300,000. And according to Goodall's nonprofit Jane Goodall Institute, there may be an even steeper decline in the next three to four decades.
As she enters her 78th year, though, Goodall hasn't given up hope; her latest book is called "Hope For Animals And Their World." Amid a drumbeat of bad news about climate change, pollution of natural resources, and abuse of animals, she cites "the incredible resilience" of nature itself.
"I have visited Nagasaki," she wrote. "Scientists had predicted that nothing could grow there for at least 30 years. But greenery grew very quickly. One sapling actually managed to survive the bombing, and today it is a large tree…all black inside; but that tree still produces leaves."
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