In her decades of work as both a scientist and an activist, one truth has permeated Jane Goodall’s career: humans are not the only beings on the planet with minds and hearts and feelings.
“It’s very obvious we are not the only beings on this planet with personalities,” Goodall said. “But still, it’s hard to convince some people.”
Speaking before a crowd of thousands inside Carver Hawkeye Arena on the University of Iowa campus on Monday, Goodall shared about the passions that launched her landmark study of chimpanzee behavior, fueled her activism in the years that followed and drives her continued outreach.
They began as a child – caring for earth worms at just over a year old and researching hens at 4 years old. Throughout her childhood, Goodall said she read and read and landed upon a book called “Tarzan of the Apes.”
“I read that book cover to cover and, of course, I fell in love with the lord of the jungle,” she said, adding that he married the “wrong Jane.” “So that is when my dream began.”
Goodall began to live out her dreams when she hopped on a boat to Africa in the 1950s. Despite having only secretarial work on her resume, Goodall was given an opportunity to research chimpanzees.
Her study in what is now Tanzania began in 1960, and she persisted through road blocks and doubt to build the foundation of future primatological research that has redefined the relationship between humans and animals.
She recalled for the UI audience her breakthrough findings – watching the chimpanzees lose their fear of her and then observing as they made “termite fishing tools.”
“At that time, we were defined as ‘man the tool maker,’” she said. “But I saw the chimps making tools.”
That discovery drew funding from National Geographic, and it led her and fellow researchers to establish hundreds of connections and similarities between humans and chimpanzees.
“It was the beginning of an awareness that there are other creatures out there who behave in ways people never expected,” she said.
Goodall eventually left the chimpanzees’ native habitat to get her doctorate, but Goodall said she always wanted to get back into the field. While in school, Goodall said, she was told by fellow scientists that she had done everything wrong. She should not have named the animals, they said.
“I was told I couldn’t talk about them having emotions and having feelings,” she said.
But Goodall said she kept doing what she knew was, indeed, right.
In 1977, Goodall established the Jane Goodall Institute, which has become a global leader in the effort to protect chimpanzees and their habitats.
In 1986, Goodall said her life’s work took a turn during a conference on conservation. She said she learned things at that conference that horrified her – disappearing forests, dwindling chimpanzee populations, “social and intelligent” animals being abused and locked in small cells.
“I went in (to the conference) as a scientist, and I came out an activist,” Goodall said.
And as she began to travel the world educating and motivating communities to action, she discovered animals weren’t the only ones struggling. People and the planet were struggling too, and Goodall aspired to improve life not only for chimpanzees and animals, but for the people near them and the environment around them.
“When you look around at what is going on, are you surprised that young people don’t have much hope for the future?” Goodall asked the audience. “But I believe we still have a chance. We have to change attitudes. But if we can contribute to change, then there’s a chance.”
Goodall’s institute launched a youth-centered program, Roots & Shoots, with that change in mind. The global environment and humanitarian group began in 1991 with a handful of Tanzanian students, and today it drives hundreds of thousands of young people in more than 130 countries to affect change for people, animals and the environment.
Speaking earlier in the day, Goodall talked specifically about farming animals and the use of chemicals in food production, and she said that change in that arena must happen slowly. She said people can start by not eating meat three times a day and revering small-scale family farms.“And,” she said, “if animals must be farmed, let them be farmed free range.”