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Jane Goodall Turns 80

Famed primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall looks back at her life’s work and forward to a future where she hopes we all try to make the world a better place.

Jane Goodall Chimp Photo

Dr. Jane Goodall with Gombe chimpanzee Freud (© Michael Neugebauer)

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and for Dr. Jane Goodall that village was filled with a mother’s doting love, a highly intelligent mutt named Rusty, the literary embrace of Doctor Dolittle and Tarzan, and a chimpanzee doll named Jubilee, which loyally sits—balding and frayed—on her dresser in England.

Goodall celebrates her 80th birthday today, and while she is known for her anthropological legacy that spans nearly five decades’ worth of observing and recording the behavior of chimpanzees, she has still managed to keep her head (and heart) above the clouds. 

Every night she raises a “tot” (a.k.a. a shot) of whiskey to what she refers to as her “cloud contingent”—her beloved primates who’ve come and gone, as well as to her mother, who encouraged her ambitions and love of animals.

“From the start she supported me,” Goodall says of her mother. “When everyone else laughed at my dreams of Africa, she said, ‘If you really want something, you will have to work hard, take advantage of opportunities, and never give up.” 

So when famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey offered her an opportunity to go to Tanzania to study chimps in Gombe Stream National Park in 1960, Goodall, only 26 at the time, took it and never looked back. 

Louis Leakey Jane Goodall Photo

A young Jane with paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey.

But while she broke gender barriers in her field, Goodall has never been one to jump on the feminist bandwagon. In fact, she admits that being a woman was actually a non issue; she was too busy “tucked away out in the forest” to indulge in others’ socio-politically charged labels of her accomplishments.

However, there’s no denying that her discoveries about chimp behavior made an unprecedented impact on how we humans see our standing in the world. Just like the title of Dale Peterson’s 2006 biography of Goodall, she indeed became The Woman Who Redefined Man

But for Goodall, it was the chimpanzees that redefined her. Of the primates she’s studied, she shares her memories of those that taught her a lesson or two about life. There was David Greybeard, the first chimp “to lose his fear” and reveal that primates can make tools to access food. There was Flo, along with her female offspring, that taught Goodall that good mothering included being “protective, but not over protective, affectionate, playful, but most important, supportive.” And last but not least, there was the chimp named Mike, who through outsmarting more brawny alpha males, showed he could climb the ranks of chimp society, despite his older age and smaller stature.

Jane Goodall Chimp Photo 1

Fearless: Dr. Goodall with chimp David Greybeard in her camp in Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanganyika. (© the Jane Goodall Institute / By Hugo van Lawick)

“I am continually amazed by the resilience of nature,” she points out. “We destroy a place, and given time, nature will reclaim [it]. An animal species, on the brink of extinction, can come back when people work to make this happen. But we are getting close to pushing mother nature too far.” 

Thus, Goodall’s passion these days is to educate and instill in younger generations the importance of saving the planet. Her international program, Roots & Shoots, offers pre-school to college students the opportunity to participate in projects that protect people, animals, and the environment, while at the same time creating an online community to support its activities.

Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots Photo

Dr. Goodall and Roots & Shoots members plant trees at the Singapore American School in Singapore. (Chris Dickinson)

But while Goodall tirelessly continues to find ways to heal the world of its ills through speaking engagements and her work through the Jane Goodall Institute, her love is still first and foremost centered around the animals that she’s devoted her life’s work to: her chimps.

For her 80th birthday, Goodall hopes she can create a haven for chimpanzees in the Republic of Congo and to build an endowment so that her humanitarian efforts will continue for generations to come. To quote Goodall herself: “We have a choice to use the gift of our lives to make the world a better place.” 

And what a gift her life has been and continues to be to the world.

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