That Time I Got to See Jane Goodall



Sitting in a pretty packed auditorium, I reflected on the last couple of days.

Some rather fortuitous Facebook browsing combined with the generosity of my old department chair/honors advisor, Mary Baker, as well as some of her colleagues who managed to get ahold of tickets before they were openly available to the public had conspired to get me here.


I don’t own a car. I drive sometimes, but I try to keep it at a minimum. This event was about an hour from my house, and I was working until 3:30. Getting there was tricky.  My fiance works nearby Rhode Island College (RIC), my alma mater, and Dr. Baker offered to give me a ride. Dropping my fiance off at work, driving to work myself (first time in about two years), and dropping the car back off with my fiance so she could drive home, I then rode the couple of miles to RIC. I got there in time. This was really going to happen.


So there I was, sitting in URI’s Ryan Center with a group of anthropology students and alumni (and Mary Baker), and thousands of others. URI’s president David Dooley opened the evening, commenting that this was the largest crowd he had ever seen for an Honors Colloquium speaker.

Dr. Jane Goodall walked out onto the stage to a (much deserved) standing ovation. It was moving to see so many people here to see this seemingly little, yet larger than life old lady talk about the fantastic experiences she’s had in her life, and how they’ve come to shape her present-day activism.

I have to admit that I didn’t exactly look into what she’d be talking about. I mean. She’s Jane Goodall. I’m an anthropologist. My primary focus/whacky dream is paleoanthropology. Which is related to primatology, both of which are subfields of biological anthropology.

I didn’t need to know the specifics. We’re talking Jane Goodall. Pioneering primatologist, foremost expert in the world on chimpanzee behavior, anthropologist, trailblazer for women in academia, educator, advocate for science. It didn’t matter to me what she was there to talk about, I knew it would be amazing.

She started her talk with a chimpanzee greeting call, which was echoed by those primatologists in the audience who knew what she was up to.

She then went on to thank her mother for all of her encouragement and support. For not being upset when she (at 1 1/2 years old) took handfulls of earth worms into her bed because she was so fascinated. For not being upset when (at 4) she vanished for several hours, hiding in a chicken nest box waiting to see an egg being laid because nobody could answer her questions about how it happened or where they came out of. By the time she emerged (victoriously) her family had called the police to report her missing.

Essentially, she was thanking her mother for encouraging her inquisitiveness and inclinations toward science, rather than discouraging her because honestly her behavior was probably a bit of a headache. People like her mom are something we need more of nowadays.

She went on to talk about the little things that seemed to converge and give her a background that led to her amazing opportunities. Women didn’t do the things she did back when she started doing them. She was one of the first women to travel her path, and she was the first of anybody to learn the things she learned about the animals she studied.

She told the story of her first trip to Africa, made by boat, and her romanticization of that trip being shattered by first setting foot in South Africa at the height of Apartheid. She talked about her privileged life having sheltered her from that kind of hatred.

You really began to feel like you related to her on a direct level. At some point I realized that it was the themes she was conveying. Her life has been amazing and I would be one of the most fortunate people alive to accomplish and experience 2% of what she has. I didn’t relate directly. But she speaks in such a way that you understand why her life has transpired in the way it has, and you start seeing the analogies in your own life.

You start understanding the privileges and opportunities that your life has to offer you, and in turn the things about yourself that you can offer to others. And things feel a bit more hopeful in light of her awesome and inspiring history.

But somehow, she is also so incredibly humble. Several times during her talk she made mention of her friends and colleagues in the audience. “How lucky were we to have been the first in those early years?” She knew that this didn’t have to have been her, just as much as she knew she was going to do everything in her power to have it be.

She was ridiculed, early on. She was accused of anthropomorphising the chimps she was studying. The same professor who was her harshest critic told her he had learned more in two weeks of working with her in forests of Gombe than he had in all his years prior.
And she was right, of course. About just about everything. What she discovered was groundbreaking, controversial, and even outright rejected when she first started describing it. But she was right, and that gap between “man” and animal began to shrink, and it has been ever since.

When she first made it to Gombe in 1960, it was an immense band of forest called the Equatorial Forest Belt that stretched from Tanganyika (now Tanzania), through what is today The Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, all the way to western Africa. But years of population growth, resource exploitation (with pressure from Western societies), and the resettlement of refugees fleeing violence have cleared out much of the land, and Gombe is now a mere 20 square miles.


Satellite imagery comparing the forest cover change between 1972 and 1999 in the region around Gombe National Park. Credits: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualiztion Studio/Cindy Starr

From an airplane in the 1990s, Goodall saw what it had become, and she quickly went from primatologist to environmental activist.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew that I had to do something.”

She set out from then on to raise environmental awareness. She found people from 12 villages and met with them, and had them reach out to the people in their own communities, saying that she didn’t want it to be “a bunch of arrogant white people going into a village and saying, ‘well, you’ve messed things up, this is what we’re going to do to make it right.'” And in this way, the local people relayed to the Jane Goodall Institute what THEY felt they could do to help them.

Eventually that help grew to trust. Water conservation methods were built. The government was brought in to build better health care facilities. Microcredit programs were developed to offer women opportunities to develop their own environmentally sustainable projects.

Gradually, the land began to be restored.

These inspiring stories were contrasted with the bleak present we now face. Juxtaposed against a horrifying and record-setting  hurricane season, the energy of Goodall’s words felt almost desperate to the thousands in the audience.

She talked about the disappearance of the rain forests and their biodiversity, about how they are even starting to slowly turn to desert, and how this depletion is rapidly diminishing the earth’s capacity to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

About the early climatological models and predictions that are now coming to fruition. And inevitably, how all of this is seemingly ignored and how hopeless it all looks on its face.

But she sees that there is hope. She sees our technological developments and the potential there. In Tanzania, where those first 12 villages were approached, the program has now expanded to where there are bands of locals protecting and policing stretches of forest using custom apps and technology to communicate with one another and send pictures of snares and other evidence of poaching.

She talked about the changes she has seen throughout her long and incredible life of groundbreaking and inspiring work, and she sees what we can accomplish. She talked about her Roots and Shoots program, which started in 1991, and how it’s now in more than 140 countries.

She is now meeting people–adults–who grew up having been a part of Roots and Shoots as a child, and it shaped their environmentalism. These are the people coming into their own now. The people raised environmentalists, raised scientifically literate, raised with the most advanced technology the world has ever seen. She sees a future with those same young adults trickling up through industry and the economy and eventually being at the helm.

She mentioned one person in particular, in China. A country infamous for its population, rapid industrialization, and pollution, where children are now being increasingly raised in a culture of environmental stewardship.

Coincidentally, one of the same children of Roots and Shoots has reached out to me since my few Instagram posts about this talk. She’s in China. She grew up in the Roots and Shoots program and Jane Goodall is one of her idols. She spent a brief time studying in Germany, and is a teacher in Hong Kong.

She recently designed a Lego set based on Jane Goodall’s camp. If it receives 10,000 votes on Lego’s website, it may very well become a set sold in stores. Her hopes are that it helps Dr. Goodall stay an inspiration for generations to come.


Despite the optimism of the end of her talk, I’m still not convinced I share it. Bombarded constantly with pseudoscience or outright science denial and surrounded on all sides by natural or human-made catastrophe, the way up from here looks nearly vertical.

It will be a lot of work. With Pedal Powered Anthropology I’m beginning to do part of my part.

I’m not positive Dr. Goodall is right. But I hope she is. She has been before.


If you’d like to watch Dr. Goodall’s Ryan Center talk (hint: you do), here it is in full.

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