Jane Goodall’s parents couldn’t afford her college tuition, but her mother encouraged her to chase her dreams to live close to animals in the wild. So she became a secretary to Kenyan paleoanthropologist, Dr. Louis Leakey and quickly impressed him with her incredible common sense and work ethic.
By the time she was 26, Jane’s performance had convinced Dr. Leakey that nobody else was as qualified to live with and study Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park’s chimpanzees.
The research she began there in 1960 still continues, thanks to the help of a dedicated team. According to Brett Morgen’s 2017 documentary Jane, “It is the longest continuous study of any animal in their natural habitat in history.”
The film uses footage long thought to have been lost but eventually rediscovered in an underground storage facility outside Pittsburgh. It tracks her earliest encounters with the primates, many pivotal moments in her research and the starting of her own family with husband Hugo van Lawick.
What struck Jane most when she first looked into the eyes of a chimpanzee? The sense that a “thinking, reasoning personality [was] looking back.”
After watching the animals’ interact, she came to the unwavering conclusion that they were “…fellow beings” who felt “… joy, sorrow, fear and jealousy.”
Within their families, the chimps expressed their emotions through kindness. But with their enemies, they were capable of horrific violence. As the first to capture a “chimpanzee war” on film, Jane struggled to accept what she witnessed:
“I thought they were like us, but nicer than us. I had no idea of the brutality that they could show. It took me a while to come to terms with that. War had always seemed to me to be a purely human behavior.”
She stresses, however, that this brutality doesn’t give us permission to behave likewise:
“Admittedly, we are not the only beings with personalities, reasoning powers, altruism and emotions… But our intellect has grown mightily in complexity – and this … means surely that we have a responsibility towards the other life forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behavior of our own human species.”
Now well into her 80s, Jane’s still considered one of the world’s foremost conservationists. And 60 years after she arrived in Gombe, her goal to educate people about their responsibility to Earth and all her inhabitants hasn’t changed:
“The role that I must play is to make sure that the next generation is better stewards than we’ve been.”
She certainly has inspired me!