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April 12, 2013

Jane Goodall Inspires with a Message of Hope

On Thursday night Jane Goodall ended the Q&A portion of her lecture at Lafayette by asking permission to tell one last tale about the emotional bond between humans and chimpanzees, an essential link she’s made famous over half a century.

Sounding like an enchanted bedtime storyteller, Goodall recalled a man who climbed over a zoo barrier to save a scared chimp from drowning, protecting both of them from a posse of wilder, angrier chimps. The man risked his life, he explained later, basically because he saw human fear in the animal’s eyes. Goodall saluted his compassion as a prime example of the need to protect all beings, whether it’s an abused circus elephant or a child in a refugee camp.

View images of Jane Goodall’s visit

The spellbinding anecdote capped Goodall’s stirring Jones Visiting Lecture, which she delivered in a packed Kamine Gymnasium. Speaking eight days after her 79th birthday, the primatologist-conservationist described her ground-breaking discoveries about the traits chimps share with humans, her crusade to help poor villages while preserving wild habitats in Africa, and her wildly popular program to teach young people how to save the planet. It was a typically inspiring speech from a United Nations Messenger of Peace popular enough to appear in an episode of “The Simpsons.”

The visit was one of three from major leaders hosted by Lafayette this month. Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, delivered the Lives of Liberty Lecture for 2012-13 April 8. Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, will deliver an address on “Reflections on Human Rights and Democracy” 4 p.m. Monday, April 22.

Goodall visited Lafayette a year after Anne Kaplan ’15 (New York, N.Y.) suggested her as a guest speaker to President Daniel H. Weiss during a Marquis Scholars dinner. Kaplan, a policy studies major, views Goodall as a triple threat: a popular scientist, an influential activist, and a magnetic role model for youth. Kaplan has been raising money on campus for Roots & Shoots, Goodall’s youth education and activism foundation. Last year the Beijing chapter employed Rebecca Slotkin ’14 (Verona, N.J.), a double major in international affairs and environmental studies, whose duties included running a gala starring Goodall.

Hands raised for emphasis, Jane Goodall speaks at a podium in Lafayette's Kamine Gym.

Jane Goodall speaks in Kamine Gym.

At a news conference earlier Thursday in Pfenning Alumni Center, Goodall said her first mentor was her mother, who taught her she could accomplish pretty much anything. Her second mentor was Louis Leakey, the fabled archaeologist-naturalist who hired her as his secretary and chimp student. He encouraged her during her frustrating early days with chimps who kept running away from her. “He kept telling me, ‘No, you can do it,’” she said with a smile. “Which drove me nuts.”

During a reception Goodall mingled with students, teachers, and the young daughter of Provost Wendy Hill, a neuroscientist who specializes in animal behavior. The primatologist had an especially spirited conversation with Rex Ahene, a professor of economics who wrote Tanzania’s policy for better land use, including supervision of private-property rights. They discussed their mutual concern for protecting gorilla habitats in Rwanda and Uganda from oil developers.

Jane Goodall signs a book for Jordan Close ’14.

Jane Goodall signs a book for Jordan Close ’14.

An hour-and-a-half later Goodall stood at the podium in Kamine Gym, accompanied by a toy chimp given to her by a blind man who became a magician. For the next hour she described her life as a boot-strap fable. She was 18 months old when she brought earthworms to bed. She was seven years old when she fell under the spell of Dr. Doolittle, the animal magician. She credited Tarzan with making her want to move to Africa and write books about wild animals.

Goodall received her chance in 1960 when Louis Leakey sent her to observe chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. The decision was daring. Not only wasn’t she a scientist, she didn’t have a university degree. She had never worked in a male-dominated profession, and she had never lived in a wilderness.

Goodall was chaperoned and counseled by her mother, who boosted her discouraged daughter by reminding her of the wonders she was observing. Her mother had left Gombe before Goodall made her first pivotal discovery: a male chimp using a blade of grass to remove termites from a mound. What was a simple act to the chimp, dubbed David Graybeard, was profound to primatologists. For the first time it was proven that chimps make tools with independent thinking.

Goodall made other radical discoveries that established chimps as humans’ closest living relatives. She observed that they eat meat, commit violent acts, adopt strangers, kiss, laugh, and dance in the rain. “We’re not the only beings with personalities, minds, and emotions.”

Professor Rex Ahene poses with Jane Goodall

Professor Rex Ahene and Jane Goodall

Goodall left Gombe in 1986, compelled by a desire to tell the world of the need to protect chimps and their human neighbors. Since then she’s been traveling up to 300 days a year, raising money and awareness for many causes. Protecting wild animals from hunters who use roads carved by logging companies. Offering loans to women for sustainable businesses. Promoting plants as seeds of hope.

Goodall finds hope in the resilience of nature and human nature. Her favorite new partnership is a preserved corridor in Tanzania that permitted the entrance of the first outsider chimp into Gombe, a fact confirmed by analyzing DNA in the visitor’s feces.

In an adventurous Q&A session following the lecture, Goodall revealed that she will campaign to stop elephant poaching in Africa and India. She would have studied hyenas if she hadn’t studied chimpanzees. She’s especially fascinated by the fact that female hyenas have dual parental roles, nursing their youngsters for one-and-a-half years while feeding them meat they’ve hunted.

Goodall finished her long day by signing copies of her books for a long linea very long lineof fans.  Ahene said he was thrilled by learning about the non-native chimp who entered Gombe through a conserved corridor; it reminded him of his own quest to block hotels and lodges from forest corridors. The discovery, he added, will inspire his sabbatical project to help African village councils develop better land use.

Kaplan was inspired by Goodall’s hope in the power of youth. She was especially empowered by the story of New Jersey school kids who raised money to send laptops to their Tanzanian peers. Shannon Moran ’14, a double major in English and music who hopes to start a Roots & Shoots chapter at Lafayette, was impressed by Goodall’s message about nature’s power to regenerate species, to turn hopelessness into hope.

“I love the fact that things can fix themselves,” she said, “and we can help them.”

Jane Goodall speaks with Provost Wendy Hill during the question-and-answer session.

Jane Goodall speaks with Provost Wendy Hill during the question-and-answer session.

Steven Mylon, associate professor of chemistry and a member of the steering committee that coordinated Goodall’s visit, considers her a role model for a college increasingly dedicated to interdisciplinary studies, conservation, and global citizenship. He believed a visit by a well-respected scientist and cultural icon could galvanize the College’s new programs in environmental science and environmental studies, which he chairs. It’s not every day, after all, that Lafayette hosts a British Dame Commander and the Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Rachel Brummel, assistant professor in environmental science and environmental studies, regards Goodall as an exceptionally concerned, visionary conservationist. Goodall, she pointed out in two talks before the Jones Visiting Lecture, is a holistic moralist who promotes programs that benefit non-humans as well as humans. One of these programs involves growing trees to replenish stripped forests in Tanzania while providing firewood for cooking.

Goodall is also far more positive, altruistic, and successful than many of her colleagues. “Environmentalists are often accused of having a PR problem,” said Brummel, “and an inability to promote a vision that empowers people to act.” No wonder, then, that Goodall appears in values.com’s “Stewardship: Pass It On” campaign. She can be seen on posters in Lehigh Valley bus shelters with a chimp and the line “Even Mother Nature has an agent.”

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