"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.
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 website, 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."
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 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."
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 cellphone 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.
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."
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?