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The Message of the Chimpanzees

Jane Goodall returned from Lake Tanganyika with more than stories

Every single day of our lives, we can see as a new adventure. We never know quite what’s going to happen, who we’re going to meet, who will say something that might change our lives, what we’ll see in a new way. It’s a very exciting thing to be alive.

–Jane Goodall, April 4, 2008: Gibson Island Country School.

Yes, the very same Jane Goodall we’ve been reading about for more than four decades and whose picture we’ve seen so many times — usually with a chimpanzee in tow — journeyed to Gibson Island Country School at Pasadena from the Jane Goodall Institute in Arlington, Va.

Dr. Goodall, now in her 70s, has the appearance we’re familiar with from photos in National Geographic and so many other popular publications and movies. She is the picture of energy. Her hair has turned an attractive gray, the ponytail is still there, she is lean — though her body shows strength — and she smiles easily and talks with authority, though not bluster. Twice in a four-hour stretch, she gave two nearly one-hour talks, and not once did she stammer, search for words or lose the rhythm of the flow. This woman is amazing. In a unique way, she also glows of patience, mixed with determination.

To the delight of students, she carried a stuffed chimpanzee doll.

Jane Goodall tells tales of chimpanzees to the eager audience of students at Gibson Island Country School.

Two audiences — one in midmorning at the school’s campus and the other following lunch at Gibson Island Country Club — bought every word she spoke. Students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade sat quietly to listen to a convincing message that encompassed more than stories of living in the bush with primates. Goodall’s message was about life of all kinds.

She glorified life as one who is enjoying it and implores others to do likewise. Nothing is out of reach. If you want it bad enough you can get it. Words of first-hand experience: She did it.

She Did It

In the summer of 1960, at 26, Goodall arrived on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, East Africa, in fulfillment of her childhood dreams, to study chimpanzees. At the time, it was virtually unheard of for a woman to venture into the wilds of what we would call the jungle. But she did it. She has even slept with chimpanzees and others of that tribe. Most consider her the world’s foremost authority on primatology.

Deep in the African forest, she began to familiarize herself to chimps, who at first fled whenever they saw her. She watched from a distance with binoculars; gradually the chimps allowed her to come closer. Then one day, she observed chimps David Graybeard and Goliath (she gave them names, not numbers, as is usually done in the scientific community) strip leaves off twigs to fashion tools for fishing termites from a nest.

This was the first of many breakthroughs via the Goodall studies; scientists had thought humans were the only species to make tools. Following came her observation of chimps hunting and eating bushpigs and other animals, which blew away thinking that the species were primarily vegetarians and fruit eaters. All this was only the beginning: Later she discovered that chimps could wage war against other colonies; one was a war of four years.

She has written of chimps and their distinct personalities, minds, emotions — and lasting family relationships. Her writings document courtships, some in which males force females into consort in remote places for days or even months. She told of watching Spindles, an adolescent chimp, “adopt” three-year-old Mel, even though Mel was not a close relative. So human are they in her portrayal that I’d consider asking a family over for dinner.

Hope Lives

But Jane Goodall did not come to Gibson Island only to talk about primates — though her latest movie, Wild Chimpanzees, kicked off the school’s Roots and Shoots Fair. The Roots and Shoots program is worldwide; some 8,000 clubs — including the one at the country school — are active.

Their mission: conservation and environment, not only for primates, but all other living things worldwide. Their approach is unique. Traditionally, knowledge and appreciation goes from adults down to children. But Roots and Shoots does it the other way around.

In my minute or two with Jane Goodall, I asked one two-part question: “In light of global warming and other things the way they are today, what’s your assessment of the world and its future? Are we making progress?”

I can’t use direct quotes, due to the mild jostling of youngsters anxious to see up close the “chimpanzee woman.” That’s what Roots and Shoots is all about. She pointed to all the students and said something to this effect: Their knowledge, work and dedication will not only ensure we have a coming generation of conservationists. Their enthusiasm will spread upward to their elders. That was the gist of it.

What a message as we approach Earth Day 2008, I thought as I stopped by all the environmental exhibits put together by Gibson Island students, who not only assembled them but were well versed and prepared to answer the questions of passersby. It resurrected hopes within me for chances of a better world.

Leaving, I was informed by granddaughter Grumpy (AKA Mackenzie Noell Boughey), a kindergarten student at Gibson Island, that I can no longer on occasion call her my little monkey. “Monkeys have tails, so call me chimpanzee,” she said. “I’ve got no tail.”

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