A wildlife biologist I interviewed last week told me that brown pelicans, with their comical looks and dramatic fishing behavior, inspired her pursuit of an outdoor career. A person, more than any animal, probably drew me toward environmental work. That person was Jane Goodall, most memorably through the National Geographic tv specials on her early research. I recall a desperate girlish longing for a blonde pony tail and a classy accent just like Jane’s, and seeing snippets of those early black & white films in a recent IMAX movie, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees brought those emotions flooding back.
My old copy of her 1971 book about those first years in Africa, In the Shadow of Man, is long gone, but my admiration of it is undimmed. “Since dawn I had climbed up and down the steep mountain slopes and pushed my way through the dense valley forests.” Re-reading that opening sentence, I understand why the book cast a spell on my mid-western girlhood.
Though I didn’t end up in a Tanzanian rainforest, I followed Goodall’s behavioral work through books and articles. When I couldn’t find enough Jane-focused writing, I read works like Dian Fossey’s Gorillas in the Mist or Sy Montgomery’s joint bio of Fossey, Goodall, and orangutan researcher Birute Galdikas--Walking with the Great Apes. One day, during a brief stint at the Humane Society of the U.S., I glimpsed if not Jane, her entourage, as they whisked their charge into my building for a board meeting. That near-encounter awakened me to the great conservationist's surprising passion for animal welfare and, in particular, for humane treatment for chimps in biomedical research.
I started reading works such as The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care for the Animals We Love (by Goodall and Marc Bekoff). “We believe that only when we understand can we care, and that only when we care sufficiently will we help.” Not as thrilling as a hike into a rainforest, but thought-provoking.
I’ve lost track of Jane a bit during my mom years. None of my kids seem captivated by her work or her bio-celebrity. Maybe my daughters are too post-feminist to need the role mode of a venturesome woman scientist like I did. My hopes are dwindling that any of my offspring will read even my favorite children’s book about of my heroine, her own My Life with the Chimpanzees. The first sentence? “It was very scruffy and hot where I crouched, and the straw tickled my legs.”
But maybe my third-grader may still succumb to her charms. He and one sister got to see Goodall in person April 4th, at an environmental education fair near Annapolis, Maryland. She spoke of her childhood, especially her mother’s role in encouraging curiosity and kindness toward animals, even after she disappeared for hours in the chicken coop to see an egg laid. Eli says the most memorable part was her ringing rendition of a chimpanzee greeting call. For me, it was her quiet description of the habitat losses that imperil her forest home of over 40 years. I hope that the many teachers listening follow Jane’s advice, and start chapters of her international youth club, Roots & Shoots. True to Goodall’s encompassing philosophy, the organization aims to empower local children to invent creative ways for improving animal welfare, the natural environment, and the human community. I don’t think the speech, moving as it was, has inspired Eli to long for a long gray pony tail (he already wanted a British accent). But of course it’s made me want to read more about Jane’s unique work, which joins humane and environmental concern better than any other natural scientist I know. Next on my list: Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People. It begins with a quote from The Tempest, Act III, Scene ii:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.