Jane Goodall receives standing ovation at Brooklyn Museum
Inspiring talk by iconic primatologist, and a toast on her 89th birthday
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Dr. Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist, conservationist, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace, spoke before a sold-out house of ardent fans at the Brooklyn Museum on Tuesday night.
Goodall received a standing ovation as she ascended the stage of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, and again as she greeted the audience in remarkably convincing Chimpanzee language, saying, “This is me, this is Jane.”
She was introduced by Anne Pasternak, Brooklyn Museum’s Shelby White and Leon Levy Director. Goodall’s appearance coincided with the start of Earth Month and, also with her 89th birthday on Monday — which she celebrated with a shot of American-made whiskey and a toast.
Goodall delivered a message of hope for those who fear there is nothing they can do to stop the destruction of the planet. “Just do one thing,” she said. “Every individual makes a difference. Nature can come back if you give it a chance — it has an indomitable spirit.”
She was joined by members of the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots youth program and environmental activists, including Pakistani American human rights and climate advocate Ayisha Siddiqa; Sanchali Pal, CEO and founder of Commons, a personal carbon footprint-tracking app; poet Jade Lozada; Cindi Leive, CEO and co-founder of media company Meteor; and artist Treasure Brooks.
Goodall’s visit also coincided with Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition “Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas.”
‘Popped out of my mother’s womb loving animals’
Interviewed by writer and artist Mona Chalabi, Goodall described her love of animals from a very young age, and her early determination to go to Africa.
“I popped out of my mother’s womb loving animals,” she said. “There was no TV when I was growing up. I had nature, my garden, the cliffs near my home and books. Birds, squirrels, the dogs and cats — those were my teachers.”
When she was about one and a half years old, her mother found her curled up in bed with a bunch of earthworms. Her mother calmly told her they might get mushed in her bed, and they brought them back out to the garden, she said.
At the age of ten, Goodall bought a used copy of Tarzan of the Apes at a secondhand book shop.
“I took it up my favorite tree and read it cover to cover,” she said, adding that she fell passionately in love with Tarzan.
“That’s when my dream began. I would grow up, go to Africa, and live with wild animals, and write books about them. No thought of being a scientist — that wasn’t for women back then. And everybody laughed at me. ‘You’ll get to Africa, it’s far away, we don’t know much about it, it’s full of dangerous wild animals, and you’re just a girl.’
“But my mother told me, ‘Jane if you really want to do something like this, then you have to work really hard, take advantage of every opportunity and if you don’t give up, hopefully you’ll find a way.’ And I’ve taken that around the world, particularly to young people in disadvantaged communities, especially girls but boys, too.”
Goodall saved up for months working as a waitress to raise the money to get to Africa. After she arrived, she met paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey at a natural history museum.
Goodall had taken “a boring secretarial course” in England, she said. “But you never know. His secretary had just quit and he needed a secretary. So now I’m in a world surrounded by people who can answer my questions about animals and birds and reptiles and insects.
“Leakey decided I was the right person to go and study chimpanzees. He had looked for somebody for years,” Goodall said. “He was studying early humans and believed that understanding our closest relatives in the world could be useful.”
Goodall wasn’t allowed to go to Tanzania alone; as a young woman, she was prevented by British authorities, she said. So, her mother accompanied her to the Gombe Stream National Park for the first four months. “We had money for the first six months and she came for four.”
Revolutionary breakthrough with David Greybeard
Her mother left two weeks before Goodall’s breakthrough with one chimp, David Greybeard, who lost his fear of Goodall before the others. “It was because of Greybeard that I began to see exciting things.”
She described seeing Greybeard stick stalks of grass into termite holes. When he removed them from the hole they were covered with termites, which he ate.
“He picked a leafy twig which he used as a tool. He had to strip the side branches of leaves. Now at that time, science had decided that humans, and only humans, could make tools. We were defined as ‘Man the Tool User,’” Goodall said.
It was a revolutionary discovery.
“It was that observation that brought the Geographic in with money to help. So, I owe David a lot,” she said. “Leakey was thrilled, because that enabled him to think that that’s what early humans probably did. They used grass tools long before the first stone tools were discovered.”
Chalabi pointed out Goodall’s other revolutionary discovery — chimpanzees had personality.
“Because David came to trust me, I could get closer to the other chimps. So, I began to learn their personalities. I learned about the relationships of mothers with their growing offspring; the dominance conflicts between males, when the male will stand upright, have a furious scowl on his face and shake his fist, and it’s all about show. It reminds me so much of two male human politicians,” she said to audience laughter. “And I didn’t say a name, did I?”
She added, “It was a shock to find they also have a dark, brutal side. They live in communities, the males control the territories, and sometimes there’s a primitive war and they kill each other over territory. But they also have a compassionate and altruistic side, just like us.”
Goodall described chimpanzee family bonds that last through life, and the adoption of chimp infants by unrelated males if the mother dies. She also described the grief of an overly-dependent 8-year-old son of an older chimp named Flo. The son curled up on the bank of a stream and died after his mother died at the age of 50. “I think he died of grief,” Goodall said. “It was the most sad scene I saw.”
She laughed at some of the sexism illustrated in early reports of her work. Chalabi read some of the headlines: “Blond Ogles Apes;” “Young, Blond and Beautiful and a Scientific Whiz.”
If the sexist publicity helped get funding, so be it, Goodall said.
Roots & Shoots
Goodall has worked tirelessly to preserve natural habitat, document the effects of climate change on endangered species such as chimpanzees, and advocate for the ethical treatment of animals.
Her strongest message is to young people who are overwhelmed by the extent of the damaged their elders have caused to the Earth. Her Roots & Shoots organization empowers young people to take action.
“Each group chooses a project to help people, animals or the environment,” she said. The organization “is now in 68 countries, with hundreds of thousands of young people and alumni.”
“Young people are dedicated, committed and passionate,” she said. “We have a window of time … Every individual makes an impact on the planet every single day, and we get to choose the impact we make.”
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