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Meeting Dr. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall and Patt Morrison in conversation at the Natural History Museum. The exhibit, “Becoming Jane, The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall” closes April 17.


Last week we had the amazing opportunity to listen to a conversation with Dr. Jane Goodall and journalist Patt Morrison, at the Natural History Museum. To the delight of museum officials who had hoped that Goodall would open the exhibition, “Becoming Jane, The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall,” last November, she was able to visit last week before the exhibit closes on April 17.  Organized and traveled by the National Geographic Society in partnership with the Jane Goodall Institute, NHM is the exhibit’s only West Coast venue.

Goodall described seeing her 88 years displayed in the exhibit as a “bit overwhelming.” (She celebrated her 88th birthday April 2.) She said the exhibit also reminded her of how much her family, especially her mother, supported her desire from a very young age to travel to Africa and observe animals. She said she hoped that viewers would take away from her improbable story of incredible achievement that if there’s something you really want to do, you should work hard and follow your dreams.

“Becoming Jane” explores Dr. Goodall’s life from her early years as an intrepid young woman with a dream to learn about animals in Africa, to her years establishing herself as a renowned scientist in Gombe, Tanzania to her current role as an activist, mentor and advocate for creating a better world for all life on Earth.

Jane Goodall was born on April 3, 1934 in London, England. At the young age of 26, she followed her passion for animals and Africa to Gombe, Tanzania, where she began her landmark study of chimpanzees in the wild—immersing herself in their habitat as a neighbor rather than a distant observer. Her discovery in 1960 that chimpanzees make and use tools rocked the scientific world and redefined the relationship between humans and animals.

For NHM guests, Goodall recalled an important turning point in her career in 1986 when she hosted a conference on the field work observing chimpanzees in Africa. At the time there were six field sites, hers was the first, but others had soon followed suit and gathered in Chicago to share their research.

“At the conference, we had a session on the destruction of the environment that was going on across Africa,” said Goodall. “The destruction of the forest and the decreasing chimpanzee numbers. After that conference, I left as an activist. Because I just knew I had to do whatever I could to make a difference, I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do something.”

Goodall never went to college but she earned a Ph.D. in ethnology while she was doing her field work in Africa under the tutelage of Dr. Richard Leakey, who had arranged for her to attend Cambridge University.

“I’d never even been to college when I started working on a Ph.D. in Ethology, which I later learned was the study of behavior, at Cambridge University, the number one science university in the UK,” Goodall told NHM guests. “My professors told me I had done everything wrong; I shouldn’t have given the chimps names. Numbers were more scientific. I couldn’t talk about their personalities, mind or emotions, because those were unique to us. And, I certainly couldn’t talk about emotions like happiness or sadness. That was the guilty, guilty sin of anthropomorphism. But fortunately I had this teacher when I was a child,  that was my dog Rusty,  and I knew that the professors were wrong.”

Goodall explained that she gradually began writing about everything she was seeing and when National Geographic sent Hugo van Lawick to make films of what she was seeing, it provided compelling evidence that these animals shared many human traits overcoming that barrier that separated humans from all the other amazing animals in the animal kingdom.

“Gradually science had to change its attitudes,” said Goodall. “It wasn’t just me, they saw film.”

“That was being taught in 1962,” recalled Goodall. “But thanks to the chimps that barrier has been broken down and we know that we are now part of the animal kingdom.”

Goodall shared a story of another turning point in her career when she was following David Graybeard, the chimpanzee who was one of the first to allow her to follow him. One day, she sat down near him, and between them was a red palm nut, a favorite among chimps. She said she held her hand out, offering him the nut. He turned his face away, explained Goodall, so she moved her hand closer.

“Then he looked directly into my eyes, took the nut, dropped it and with the same gesture, squeezed my hand, the way chimpanzees reassure each other,” said Goodall. “At that moment we communicated perfectly in a gestural language; I knew that he didn’t want the nut but that he appreciated my offer,” said Goodall. “I still treasure that moment because it was when I realized I had to dedicate my life to helping the chimps.”

Goodall is convinced that so many current problems confronting us are because humans “have so disrespected animals. That’s why we have the pandemic today, this is why everyone is wearing masks,” said Goodall. “We have penetrated deep into animals habitat giving viruses the opportunity to jump from animal to human. We are also crowding animals together in wildlife markets, trafficking them around the world creating additional amazing opportunities for new diseases to emerge.”

“We have to remember that each one of these trafficked animals, cowering and terrified in a tiny barren cage, each one of those is an an individual with a personality and a mind and feelings of fear, terror, pain, bewilderment and despair,” cautioned Goodall. “Animals in factory farms are also individuals and those farms too are potential sources of new viruses.”

Despite that, Goodall is overall hopeful, noting that we have made progress and there has been gradual change in appreciating the fragile nature of life on earth and respecting our fellow creatures.

When asked about challenges she faced as a woman, Goodall she said she believes that women are in many ways uniquely suited to be stewards of life on earth as they have evolved to be caretakers of the human species. But she was quick to point that each of us has male and female qualities and encourages all to work with heart and head connected.

At the Jane Goodall Institute, “hope” is a verb. Goodall encouraged the audience to “think globally and act locally.” It’s easy to be depressed when you think globally, but Goodall said taking action locally can make you feel good and you can inspire other people to take action.

She offered advice about how to solve large problems like climate change.

“We need to create unity around any problem,” said Goodall. “People need to understand what the problem is, and how that problem is interrelated to other problems so we can see the problem as a whole and you can draw people together that can give you more opportunity for success.”

“We are at the beginning of a very long, very dark tunnel with a tiny spark of light at the end. Rather than stay at the mouth of the tunnel, we need to roll up our sleeves, climb over every obstacle and take people along with us as we go. Hopefully we can reach the light before it’s too late,” said Goodall, adding “But hope is about action, it’s not just wishful thinking.”

When a guest asked how the pandemic affected Goodall, she recalled she was on her way to start a lecture tour when she was “grounded.”  But thanks to her team at the Jane Goodall Institute, who created virtual Jane, she has appeared in all over the world virtually doing interviews, visiting conferences and growing her social media to nearly 9 million followers across all her platforms.

We were delighted to meet IRL Jane and have the opportunity to tour “Becoming Jane, The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall” which brings her work to life.

Visit NHM.ORG/becoming-jane for tickets and information. The exhibit closes April 17.


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Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.

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