Last night I headed out to the heart of Auckland City to see Jane Goodall speak to a sold-out crowd. Where to begin. I have a good 30 minute drive home from the city (plus the time it takes for me to un-lose myself and find the motorway away from all those bustling streets), and the best word to describe how I felt driving home was, well: Good. I felt good after hearing Dr Goodall speak. I also wanted to cry – she talked about many topics that I care deeply about. And you know what? Wanting to cry also made me feel Good: because I do, very obviously, care about those things.
The two strongest words I took out of her presentation were ‘magic’ and ‘hope’. Jane is full of hope for the future, despite how bleak the world looks at times. And she is still able to describe so many of her experiences as ‘magical’. Really, she is a prime example of an incredible spirit; she has done so much good in her life, and has seen some horrific things, and yet she still smiles on and lives with hope. That’s the best way I can describe what I took out of the evening: Hope.
Jane has been travelling the last few days up New Zealand, speaking firstly in Dunedin, then Wellington and last night Auckland where I live. Each evening has sold out, and she has spoken publicly to over 6,000 New Zealanders while she has been here in the mere space of a few days. It has been her first ever public talk here – hopefully not her last, as there were so many more who wanted to come and see her.
Dame Jane Goodall is, of course, a pioneer of sorts – not only for science, but also for women. She is extremely well known for discovering much of what we know about chimpanzees today, and for her environmental/conservation/animal welfare work in general. As she stepped up to the microphone after carefully walking across the stage in front of 2,500 people, she greeted us in a way she knows best.
“This is me, this is Jane, I’m announcing myself.”
But she said it in chimpanzee.
(Sample, from another talk, below.)
Jane started life as any typical animal-lover would; totally intrigued with all critters and crawlies. She said one thing that really set the path ahead for her, though, was the support of her mother. She recalled a time when she was about a-year-and-a-half old, and her mother found her with a pile of earthworms in her bed! Jane said she had been staring at the little worms with a look of wonder on her face, as if she was thinking “How do these things walk without legs!?” Most mothers would probably be quite deterred, but instead of scolding her baby, Jane’s mother scooped the earthworms and Jane up in her arms, took them all outside, and returned the worms to the ground. She explained to little Jane that the worms wouldn’t survive in a bed; they needed the earth to live.
A few years later Jane got to visit a farm with her mother, and being face-to-face with all these incredible animals just intrigued her. She told us last night that she had been given the job of collecting the chicken eggs – and just how a big egg came out of a chicken had utterly perplexed her. That was surely impossible, she thought! She looked at the chickens, and couldn’t see any hole so big that an egg that size could come out, so she decided to solve the mystery herself by following a chicken to see if it would lay something.
The first chicken she watched went into a coop, and four-year-old Jane crept in after it. Of course, laying hens can be very timid creatures, and with many loud squawks and a fractious flapping of wings the chicken fled the coop after seeing this wide-eyed child stalking it. So, little Jane decided to change tactic. She found an empty coop, and sat inside and waited. And waited. And waited some more. She waited for four hours, until finally a chicken came inside, and Jane witnessed the laying of an egg. She solved the mystery for herself. It was after dark that she returned to her mother, who was of course extremely worried about little Jane going missing for so long. However, instead of berating her daughter for running off, she sat and listened to this delighted child’s wondrous tale of how a chicken lays an egg.
Jane’s mother encouraged her to read books from an early age, and one of the first she ever bought herself was Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Jane said she read this book cover to cover, and of course “fell passionately in love” with this great man of the jungle. Sadly, though, he broke her heart. “What did he go and do!? He married the wrong Jane!” (This really made me giggle.)
Jane’s curiosity, intrigue and sense of adventure was obvious even from a young age, and is something so many of us can relate to. To be honest with you I didn’t know a lot about Jane’s background until I went to her talk last night. I knew she was a learned woman, but I had no idea that when she first arrived in Africa she didn’t have any kind of degree under her belt at all. She told us that when she was in her early 20s, a friend of hers invited her to Kenya. Perhaps it was that brave, rugged man-of-the-jungle’s story that fueled her fascination with all things African, but it was an invitation she just couldn’t pass up. She worked as hard as she could to afford a return boat passage to Africa, and waved her mother goodbye at the age of 23.
As Jane pointed out last night, it is not uncommon for much younger women to head off across the world on adventures nowadays – but back then it was practically unheard of. Thus not only was Jane a pioneer in the field of biological science and conservation, but also for the independent, traveling woman. She described her journey to Africa as “total magic”; watching the grey waters surrounding England turn to blue, the smells of Africa in the air, flying fish and other new creatures right in front of her. She ended up getting a job with Louis Leakey, renowned paleoanthropologist. She impressed him with her knowledge of Africa’s nature despite never being there before or having a graduate education. He eventually secured six months of funding for an observational program, and sent her on her way to what is now known as Gombe Stream National Park, a part of Tanzania only accessible by boat that was home to indigenous chimpanzees. Jane wasn’t the only non-African to lead this excursion, though; once again, her mother lent amazing support and actually came along for four months of the journey! In Jane’s presentation last night, she thanked her mother countless times, recognising that without her curiosity, dreams and wild inspirations being nurtured, she would never have turned out the way she has.
Jane spent four months on Gombe without observing too much that she would consider as ‘ground-breaking’. Her mother tried to convince Jane that the young pioneer had done amazing work; she had been getting glimpses of the way these animals live; their social structure, their territorial behaviour, the way they care for one another. But Jane said the most breakthrough observation happened just after her mother left Gombe and returned home, four months after the excursion began. ‘David Greybeard’ was a male chimp that Jane had named for the grey colour of his beard. He was the chimpanzee Jane first grew closest to, and she believes he helped the other chimps trust in her as they learnt she wouldn’t hurt them. One day, Jane was watching David Greybeard as he sat near a termite mound. He picked a long blade of grass out of the ground, and stuck it in the termite mound. The chimpanzee pulled the blade of grass out of the termite mound, which was now covered in termites, and Jane watched in awe as he picked the termites off the grass with his lips and crunched them in his mouth. He then repeated this action of dipping the blade of grass into the termite mound to collect insects before sticking them in his mouth to eat them. This was ground breaking, because this was what is known as tool use.
Not only did Jane discover that the chimpanzees knew how to use tools, but they would also do things such as strip a twig of its leaves and go fishing for termites. This is called tool modification, and it is the beginning of tool making. Back then, scientists believed humans were the only species intelligent enough to make tools. When Jane reported her findings, her mentor told her that it was incredible. “We will either have to redefine ‘man’, redefine ‘tool’, or accept chimpanzees as humans!”
Thus Jane completely changed what humans then thought they knew about non-human intelligence.
Something else Jane said last night really stuck in my mind. She said that through watching the chimpanzees, she came to see they were far more like us than we ever realised. They had evolved to use touch, posture, and gestures as forms of communication – like we have. She proved that certain knowledge was passed down in different communities from generation to generation – this is known as ‘culture’ in human terms. She showed they have incredible social bonds. She also said, however, that “tragically, like us, they have a dark side.”
A dark side. But their dark side, and our dark side, are on extremely different levels in my opinion.
Jane learnt that the chimpanzees can be very aggressive. Groups of neighbouring territories fight, and some individuals – sometimes many individuals – die from their wounds. To establish hierarchy inside a group there are always physical tests of strength, fights and arguments. To get to the top, a male chimpanzee has to beat the current highest-ranking male. Jane learnt that different chimpanzees would use different strategies to do so. A chimpanzee she named Goliath was quite fond of throwing rocks. He was overthrown by Mike, a male who wasn’t the strongest or biggest chimpanzee in the Gombe group Jane was watching, but “he had brains”. Mike learnt that he could use empty kerosene bottles from Jane’s camp as tactical weapons, throwing and kicking them at opponents during challenging displays. Mike ended up reigning for six years. He was eventually overthrown by a chimp named Humphrey, who didn’t have brains but possessed a lot of brawn and would only challenge Mike when his brother was around – the two of them would team up against Mike. Humphrey was at the top of the hierarchy for a year-and-a-half, before losing out to another male. And so on and on it went.
“But they also have a good side – like us. They show compassion. They show altruism.” Of course, in the science world you can’t claim that a non-human animal is ‘compassionate’, or ‘caring’, or ‘kind’. Or even ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Jane witnessed countless examples of times where the chimps expressed a quality we had only ever used for ourselves. For example, it is common for a young chimpanzee to be adopted by an older brother or sister if it loses its mother, but Jane witnessed an unrelated male adopt a young baby in need – he ensured it was fed, he kept it safe, tucked it against himself when he slept; he saved its life despite social and survival rules dictating otherwise.
After Jane’s initial six months of research, the National Geographic offered to fund the program for another six to seven years. Louis Leakey did want Jane to have more credibility, though, and made sure she did a PhD. For someone with so much knowledge and experience as Jane, she said she felt terrible when her professors constantly told her she was “wrong”. She was trying to explain that chimpanzees are capable of thinking, and emotions, but in the world of scholars this is not allowed. You have to be very careful about your wording if you are to be taken seriously in science. Jane told us last night that if anyone had a dog growing up, or lived caring for a cat or cow or rabbit we would know animals have personalities, minds and feelings – but she could not communicate this the way she wanted in her higher education. A friend of hers came up with a suggestion, a loophole for this if you will. Instead of saying, “the young chimpanzee behaved that way because it was jealous,” she simply would say (and here’s a tip for all you biologists out there!) “The young chimpanzee behaved in such a way that if she was a human child, we would say she was jealous.” Clever!
Jane said she never meant to get into the “sanctuary business”. It is a huge commitment to take on a chimpanzee for the rest of its life. It is expensive, and requires resources. She said it is the most difficult thing to fundraise for. But Jane was walking through a marketplace one day and saw a little chimp, chained, in a cage, surrounded by tall local men laughing and shouting loudly. The little thing looked at her, as if to say ‘Won’t anyone help me?’
The bush meat trade is still going strong. Roads carved through natural habitat for foreign logging and mining operations (etc.) have created an easy access way for poachers to travel along and shoot whatever they come across – elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, birds, bats; anything they want. I have talked about the use of wild animals as photo props – and Jane reiterated last night that the only way to get a young wild-born primate is to kill its family. Mothers and family groups are slaughtered for the bush meat trade, while tiny youngsters are taken in and sold illegally. Hotels buy them because it attracts tourists. Sometimes ignorant (and often non-ignorant) foreigners purchase them. It is all funding the same killing. Jane called the authorities in regards to the little fellow she found in the marketplace, and he became her first rescue chimpanzee.
Now Jane is involved with dozens of sanctuaries in different areas. Rescuing a chimp, to her, is a pledge that it will be safe for the rest of its life. It will be physically cared for, its intelligence will be nurtured and it will be kept mentally stimulated. It will be free from harm and distress. Chimpanzees can be difficult to look after; they are strong, potentially dangerous (I definitely know this after working with dear old solitary chimp Janie at the zoo!), and they do require a lot to keep them busy. They can live for over 60 years. It is no small commitment. “Is it worth it?” Jane asked out loud last night. “Every single chimpanzee is worth it.” She said it is also worth it when people come through one of the sanctuaries, realise they relate more to chimps than they could have ever imagined, and walk away saying something like ‘I’ll never eat chimpanzee again.’ That is a small but important victory.
Jane spurred biological science on to accept that chimpanzees (and, consequently, other animals) are extremely intelligent. They not only use tools, but actually modify and make tools. They have families; they care for each other even if it is not beneficial for themselves as individuals. They learn from each other. They pass knowledge down through generations. They mourn for lost group members. They are extremely intelligent. “But,” as Jane points out, “what is this in comparison to we who build rockets? Make robots that walk on Mars? Send a man to the moon?” It just doesn’t compare. So then how is it possible that us, a species so intelligent, is utterly destroying its one and only home?
“Where have we gone wrong?” Jane asked us, pausing to look around the theatre. I know I couldn’t answer.
Jane went on to say that she believes we lost our wisdom along the way. We have experienced this explosive spurt of intellect, but now we are making decisions without thinking about how it will affect our descendants and the future. We base decisions on the next political campaign, on the next paycheck, on “what I want right now.” I think of it in the sense that humankind is in its teenage phase: going around doing whatever it wants without thought of the consequences. Unfortunately, there is nobody wiser around to make us stop. We will be left to learn from our mistakes all by ourselves – but what happens if it is too late to learn? What if the mistakes are so drastic we can’t ever fix them?
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, not every man’s greed.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Jane has seen a lot in her time. She now spends 300 days out of every year in some foreign place, dedicated to spreading awareness and supporting conservation. She said she hasn’t stayed more than three weeks in the same place in a very long time. You would think, with so much happening in the world, that she would become as so many people do – weighed down, hopeless, helpless. But she is filled with more hope than I have seen in a lot of people. Last night she noted that she meets a lot of ‘young people’ who are depressed, desperate, and even angry about what goes on. They do not think anything will ever change, and they have almost given up. Jane disagrees. She believes we have a “window of hope” – a very short time in which we can change what goes on. She set up her Roots & Shoots program, which gets people to take part in three projects: 1) people (e.g. volunteering with a woman’s refuge), 2) animals (e.g. fostering an animal in need), and 3) the environment (e.g. clearing rubbish). Roots & Shoots started with twelve students, and has spread across to 136 countries with thousands of active groups. Jane says it encourages people to go back to “watching plants grow and playing in the dirt,” the thought of which I absolutely love.
Dame Jane Goodall has hope. One of her favourite trees is a giant English oak – a ginormous tree that starts from a mere, tiny seed. “How can something so small become so big? There is a magic in the seed – a life force.” I love how she uses the word ‘magic’ to describe so many things that many of us take for granted. The magical life force in that tiny seed allows it to slowly, slowly but surely reach down into the ground for nutrients and shoot up from the dirt for sunlight. And eventually, the huge oak tree can break bricks and crack houses in two. This is the power Jane sees in young people. She has hope because of the people who haven’t given up yet, who see the time ahead of them as an opportunity to contribute something good. She has hope because of the human brain – there are people doing and creating amazing things to help change the way we are abusing the world. And Jane has hope because of the resilience of nature. She used the story of the Black robin in New Zealand as an example of this resilience:
The Black robin as a species got down to only seven individuals. Only two of those individuals were female. One was infertile, and the final remaining female (affectionately named “Blue” for the blue band on her leg) had an infertile mate. These birds supposedly mate for life, but the very last fertile female Black robin in the entire world decided to find herself a new mate, and with a little help from some very dedicated conservationists, there are now over 200 Black robins.
“Don’t give up,” urges Jane. “We possess an indomitable spirit. Live with love and compassion.” Nurture fresh curiosity. Be a conscious consumer. Support good things. Have a look at Jane’s Roots & Shoots program – if every person in the world started out by doing three small, good deeds, how different would life be?
When someone asks “So what do you do?” don’t give the standard, “Oh, I work in retail” answer. Be able to tell them what you actually do – what is important, not for money, but for our home, for our descendants, for the innocents out there who don’t deserve mistreatment.
If you read through this whole thing and it resonates with you, that’s a damn good start, and like Jane you give me hope.