Fifty years after she first crouched down in the tall Tanzanian grass, Goodall reflects on her transition from groundbreaking chimpanzee researcher to environmental activist.
Jane Goodall's name will forever be linked to chimpanzee study, but her second act is having a much broader impact on the planet.
The woman best known for fascinating us with the antics and heartbreaks of chimps named Fifi, Flo and Frodo now dedicates her life to environmental causes. Through the Jane Goodall Institute, she has founded two internationally influential conservation programs -- Roots & Shoots for youths and TACARE (Take Care), which involves locals in efforts to preserve rain forests and wildlife.
These days, her home base is London, although she spends less time there than on the road, lecturing and fundraising, including a local stop at Beth El Synagogue on Monday.
Goodall, 76, doesn't have time to observe chimps anymore, but her first loves remain close as can be to her heart. Only slightly more than 300,000 are left in the wild, down from well over a million when she began her historic observation in 1960.
"They're spread over 21 countries, many in tiny isolated groups with little hope of long-term survival," she said.
Goodall, who is magnetic precisely because she never tries to charm, has another persuasive power -- bridging the gap between emotion and science as effortlessly as a chimp swings from vine to vine. When she first returned to England to report her findings to scientists, she was accused of anthropomorphizing the chimps by giving them names and claiming to know their feelings. She learned to say things like "Fifi behaved as if she was depressed" rather than "Fifi was depressed" to prevent her data from being thrown out.
"At the time, theories of animal behavior were very reductionist," she said. "When I talked about chimps having personalities and frames of mind, I was berated soundly."
And how about now, after she has earned the title Dr. Goodall, numerous honors and such monikers as "the Einstein of behavorial science"?
"There's still a little pocket of resistance, mostly from people doing invasive research," she said. "They prefer animals not to have minds."
Today, Goodall's method of "combining extremely careful observation and very precise description with an appreciation for what's probably going on inside a chimp's head, that's become mainstream in biology now," said Dr. Anne Pusey, who until recently ran the Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Pusey first worked under Goodall as a student in Gombe National Park, the Tanzanian preserve where most of the chimp research took place, in the 1970s.
"She has tremendous inner certainty," Pusey said. "In her talks and her writing, she's brilliant the way she makes people care so much about the chimps by just describing them in an objective way."
While Goodall presents an unflappable, serene exterior to the public, Pusey has seen her visibly angry: "She can get extremely mad at people for mistreating animals, and if she thinks people have behaved badly."
A farewell to research
Following an inspiring environmentalism conference in Chicago in the mid-1980s, Goodall experienced a conversion that led her on a broader quest -- saving the planet. But her decision to become an activist did not come without sacrifice. Her 1986 book "The Chimpanzees of Gombe" was originally planned as the first of two volumes, and the second one is now unlikely to ever be written.
"It was going to be about family relations and development among the chimps, which is what she was most interested in," said Pusey, now chair of the evolutionary anthropology department at Duke University. "She once told me she was jealous of me still doing research because she loves it and isn't doing it anymore. It's sad there won't be a Volume 2. Other people will try, but nobody else can present it in the Jane Goodall way."
Goodall launched Roots & Shoots in 1991 with a dozen high-school students.
"I kept meeting young people who were apathetic, depressed or angry because they felt the previous generations had compromised their future -- which we have, no question," Goodall said. "But it's not true that nothing can be done. The main message is: 'Everyone makes a difference.'"
Creating a global 'life force'
Today there are at least 16,000 active groups in 122 countries with an average of 30 members each, ranging in age from preschool to college students. Every group chooses three kinds of projects, one each for people, animals and the environment. The program's name symbolizes "tiny seeds that may look weak, but grow into tall, strong trees, and little roots will break through a brick wall to reach water and sunlight," she said. "It's life force."
Of all her accomplishments, Goodall feels proudest of TACARE, because its strategy of involving African villagers and farmers in the conservation of the land, trees and animals around them is now being emulated worldwide.
"It's simply the only way to succeed in impoverished countries," she said. "You've got to be very holistic, from tree nurseries to family planning assistance, to scholarships. You can't expect people to care about trees if they're starving."
In Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, village volunteers are given cell phones so they can use Google Earth to help monitor forest damage.
"If they find a tree cut down or a fire, they can enter data that goes right up to the satellite," Goodall said. "Ten years ago, all the trees were leveled outside Gombe Park. Now 15-foot-high trees provide a new buffer zone. People are letting the trees grow back because they care -- they realize it's best for every living thing there, including them."
The bush-meat trade and illegal animal trafficking are different challenges, more difficult to stop, she said: "It's completely unsustainable to kill endangered animals, but the problem is it's giving certain people a lot of money."
Still, she remains hopeful that the next generations' attitude adjustments will stem the tide. Goodall's local talk falls, aptly enough, during National Environmental Education Week.
"People feel helpless because of the enormity of the problem, and so do nothing," she said. "But one action multiplied by a billion makes a huge difference. Every single day, every single one of us makes a difference, and we get to choose what it will be. Spend a little time each day thinking of the consequences of your choices -- what you eat, what you wear, how you are affecting the world. That's how to make those small differences add up."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046