Livia Albeck-Ripka on Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall often jokes that Tarzan married the wrong Jane. “That other Jane,” she says, was a wimp and a sissy. Jane Goodall, however, is nothing of the sort.
She has spent more than 25 of the past 30 years moving through countless airports, taxis, lobbies and auditoriums, tirelessly fighting for chimpanzees. I meet her at the end of one of these long days, looking over the cloudy city of Melbourne from the 30th floor of her hotel.
This life is a far cry from Jane’s beginnings as a 23-year-old crossing the ocean to the “dark continent” of Africa. She had loved Tarzan as a child, and was insistent that one day, she would live with and write about chimps, however naive the idea sounded to others. While her peers were vying for jobs as airhostesses, Jane was saving up to go to Kenya and live out her dream. By a stroke of luck, the famed archaeologist and paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, offered to send her to Gombe National Park to conduct one of the first studies of wild chimpanzee behaviour.
For the next 25 years, Jane lived in the Tanzanian forest, maintaining little contact with the outside world. She married twice: once, to the photographer who made her a National Geographic cover girl, and then to the park’s director, whose death six years later tore her apart. Jane’s son to her first marriage, Hugo (better known as Grub) was terrified of the chimps. Once, she rushed to his cot when she heard the chimps calling in the way they do only when they’ve found meat, to discover that a student was simply replaying old recordings of their sounds.
During her time in Gombe, Jane observed that chimps had the capacity for humour, awe, compassion, brutality, warfare, and most significantly, toolmaking. When she faxed Leakey news that she had observed a chimp stripping back a blade of grass to fi sh for termites, he wrote, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!” Nevertheless, Jane was criticised by the scientific community for her lack of experience and objectivity—insults no doubt bolstered by the fact that she was a woman. She had named and grown close to the animals she studied, and was mocked, as well as praised, by the media, who crafted the cult of Jane, without which, her work wouldn’t have been funded.
But unlike “that other Jane,” she wasn’t feeble, and upon realising the dwindling numbers and devastation of the chimp’s natural habitat in the mid 80s, Jane left the peace of the forest. Since then, she has campaigned on the road more than 300 days a year, and is never in one place longer than three weeks. Her toy monkey companion, Mr H, is a talisman for the silenced. He has met more than four million people.
It’s hard to fathom how an 80-year-old can sustain the battle, but Jane speaks in “musts” rather than “want tos”; dismissing the idea of sacrifice. Behind a face whose lines tell the story of over half a life crusading, there’s a young woman longing for adventure and freedom, who had no idea of the legend she would become. Many have called her “the voice of the voiceless” but it’s the chimps, insists Jane, who gave her a voice. Perhaps that’s why she most often introduces herself with the pant-hoot of a chimpanzee.