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Xavier Magazine | July 28, 2017

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Primal Research

Lisa Mauch

After traveling 300 days out of every year to speak to audiences around the world, renowned scientist Jane Goodall has perfected her greeting.

“Oooh-ooh-ooh-aah-aah.”

That, she tells the crowd of 3,000 who gathered at the Cintas Center on Oct. 9, is the distance call of the chimpanzee.

She would know. For the past 43 years, Goodall has spent her life learning the signals, habits and traits of the wild chimpanzees at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Africa. It’s been a hard life, but it’s the only life she’s ever wanted.

When she was 10 years old, she announced that when she grew up she was going to go to Africa to study animals and write books. Everyone laughed at her for having such a wild dream. Everyone, that is, except her mother, Vanne. “She used to say, ‘Jane, if you want something, work hard, look for opportunities and you’ll find a way,’ ” says Goodall.

Since the family didn’t have the money to send Jane to a university, Vanne advised her daughter to go to secretarial school, telling her she’d be able to get a job anywhere. Goodall took her advice and later was hired to be an assistant for anthropologist Louis Leakey. Impressed with the knowledge she had gained solely from books, he offered her the opportunity to go to Africa to study chimpanzees. “He realized I didn’t care a lot about boyfriends and clothes or hairstyles and parties,” says Goodall. “I just wanted to learn about animals.”

It took a year for Leakey to get the money for her study. Nobody wanted to fund a woman, and the British authorities in Africa wouldn’t allow her to come unless she had a companion. So her mother came and stayed with her for the first few months. She was there to comfort Goodall when she came home frustrated because the chimpanzees were running away from her and she hadn’t discovered anything significant yet.

Then she made a critical discovery. Over time, the chimpanzees allowed her to come closer and she observed one of them taking a branch from a plant and modifying it into a tool to dig for termites to eat. “They use more objects as tools than any other animal except us,” says Goodall. “And they modify their tools. This tool-making behavior was the breakthrough.”

This challenged the notion that man was the only being capable of making and modifying tools. With this knowledge under her belt, Goodall’s six-month stay turned into a four-decade field study and the formation of the Gombe Stream Research Centre. In that time, Goodall’s research has continued to uncover similarities between humans and chimps. “They kiss and swagger and pat each other on the back, and it all means the same thing,” she says. “They have a sense of humor and can recognize themselves in mirrors. Only sophisticated language separates us.”

She also noticed that, like humans whose culture varies from place to place, chimpanzees also have diversity depending on location. Says Goodall, “Everywhere we’ve studied chimps, there are different tool-making techniques and behavior, which the little ones learn from their parents.”

Not all the similarities are as innocuous though. Like us, chimpanzees also have a dark side and can demonstrate aggressive behavior. Different groups of chimps have declared war on each other with one group’s males killing the other males in order to claim the young females. At first Goodall was told by the scientific community to keep this information to herself because people might feel that mankind’s tendency toward war and violence was inevitable since chimpanzees also demonstrated it.

Goodall’s response to this thinking is “chimps are so like us, capable of warfare, but we must also remember they are capable of love and compassion. Humans have basic aggressive traits—but we’ve also inherited traits of love and altruism. Aren’t we sophisticated enough to choose which traits to follow?”

Goodall is banking on mankind being smart enough to choose its compassionate nature over its aggressive one when it comes to chimpanzees and their habitat. According to her, even the future of the Gombe chimps, who live in a protected area, is uncertain.

“Fifteen years ago, European and Asian logging companies moved in, and the last pristine forest opened up and hunters from town could now ride on logging trucks. Deep in the forest there are hundreds of people who were never there before. They’re paying Pygmy hunters to shoot food for the logging staff. It’s totally unsustainable hunting.”

It’s not just foreigners wreaking havoc on the land. In an effort to feed their families and survive, natives are cutting down trees in order to plant crops. Even though the natives know clearing the land will cause soil erosion, they continue to do so out of desperation. “There are more people living on the land than the land can possibly support,” says Goodall. “People are struggling to exist.”

In an effort to combat this day-to-day struggle, she started a program in the village near Gombe that helps women find work, and offers AIDS prevention education and family planning counseling. It also helps conserve the land and even repairs some of the damage. “It’s turning around,” says Goodall. “Hills that were once bare now have new green growth.”

Seeing the return of foliage to a once barren field gives Goodall hope, something she’s often found lacking in the younger generation. “As I traveled, I was talking to young people who had lost hope and were angry because they thought we had corrupted their future,” she says. “We have.”

This inspired her to create a program for schoolchildren called Roots & Shoots. The program is active in 60 countries with all kinds of children: inner city, suburban and rural; rich and poor. Roots & Shoots is also in retirement homes and prisons. It teaches people how to make a better community, how to make the lives of animals better and how to help protect the environment. “It brings hope to me,” says Goodall. “I get a lot of energy from the program. Everywhere I go there are kids with shining eyes who make the world a better place.”

More than 300 children from nine local schools created a book of poems and artwork for Goodall while she was in Cincinnati. She had come to town to promote her Omnimax film Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees, which runs through Feb. 14, 2003, at the Cincinnati Museum Center. She also spoke at a fund-raising event to benefit both the museum and the Cincinnati Zoo. Wherever she goes, though, she asks people to think about what they can do to make the world a better place and then to go out and do it.

“It gives me greater reason for hope that more people are getting involved,” she says. “I’m trying to grow a family of caring people. Every one of us makes a difference every day.”

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