Jane Goodall: the hope is with us

Jane Goodall spoke before a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs last Thursday. Photo by Susan Safford
Jane Goodall, known world-wide for her ground-breaking work with chimpanzees and her dedication to saving animals and the environment, received standing ovations as she spoke before a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs last Thursday. Photos by Susan Safford

By CK Wolfson - August 10, 2006

It is not as much her message as it is her anthem; not as much her delivery as it is her presence.

The crowd that filled the Tabernacle this past Thursday was held spellbound for almost two hours by Jane Goodall, a passionate environmentalist, ethnologist, and the reigning international icon of research in the field of chimpanzee behavior.

With the serenity of an enlightened religious figure, Ms. Goodall, an image in shades of tailored white, stood straight and - except for an occasional hand gesture - absolutely still behind the podium. So slight and soft-spoken as to appear fragile were it not for the clarity and conviction of her words, she told of the human encroachment on wildlife habitats that is endangering species, among them the chimpanzees of East Africa; of the urgency to protect and conserve natural resources; and - most emphatically - of the significant difference a single person can achieve in saving the natural planet.

Jane Goodall signing hundreds of books, meeting admirers, and having her photo taken with many children. Photo by Susan Safford
Ms. Goodall stayed for nearly two hours after her talk, signing hundreds of books, meeting admirers, and having her photo taken with many children. She was accompanied, as is her custom, by stuffed ape-relatives, given to her by well-wishers.

After an introduction by Peabody award winner Charlayne Hunter-Gault, author of "New News Out of Africa" (Oxford University Press), Dr. Goodall, who seemed just to appear, rather than make an entrance, began by imitating the breathy, cooing sound that chimps in the Gombe Mountains use to greet each other.

Quietly, the extraordinary 62-year-old Goodall chronicled her lifelong interest in African animals, her professional association with anthropologist Louis Leakey, and her research at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Each point was animated with personal anecdotes - at 23 she earned money to travel to Kenya by working as a waitress - and even fables that had application, like one about the wren flying higher than the eagle, to illustrate her point about the importance of challenging oneself by setting lofty goals.

A row of ponytails and baseball caps remained in rapt attention as Ms. Goodall, who in her 30s founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which is based in Ridgefield, Conn., continued the speech that she presents most often during her year-round travels around the globe. "Every single person in the world makes a difference," she said, the words floating, then lingering over the crowd.

Jane Goodall visits Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown. Photo by Susan Safford
On Friday morning, Jane Goodall visited Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown where, in an intimate outdoor setting, she talked with youngsters from both the Felix Neck Fern and Feather camp and others from local Roots and Shoots groups, as well as with some delighted adults. Later, Ms. Goodall met with a number of Vineyard conservation leaders. Roots and Shoots, a unique environmental and humanitarian education program for young people sponsored by the Jane Goodall Institute, has groups around the globe. Organized on a local level, the youngsters choose their own hands-on projects to help make the world a better place. Watch for a story on Roots and Shoots in next week's Times.

Exuding a calm that seemed contagious, Ms. Goodall gave credit to her family for instilling in her the courage of her convictions; to the lessons learned from her own dog, and to her belief in the indomitability of the human spirit and the resiliency of nature.

And the audience, composed in large number of youngsters and teens, listened with reverent attention as Ms. Goodall explained the close relationship between animals and humans, and described the impact of commercial hunting on species survival. "Bush meat," she said, was needed for the logging workers whose foreign companies were laying roads and clearing animal habitats. "We are destroying the animals of our planet, along with the trees," she softly announced.

Describing the look in the eyes of a desperate, drowning chimpanzee as one similar to what she has seen in the eyes of refugees, she said, "And you have to jump in and help." She continued, "How can we think of saving chimpanzees when people are starving, and struggling to survive?" Her answer: Create a holistic program to conserve resources, provide information on farming methods and on family planning.

Her love of home in Africa, where since 1967 she has directed the Gombe Stream Research Center, was sacrificed so she could dedicate herself to raising the consciousness of people worldwide to the plight of wildlife, the environment, and the growing population of refugees.

"You can't take a tiny piece of the puzzle and expect to make it right," she told the gathering, gently adding, "We tend to be lazy and to wait until our backs are against the wall. But then, in our own little lives we are realizing we need to be less greedy and less selfish."

Her Roots and Shoots program was created in 1991 in Tanzania to educate and inspire children to become involved in improving the living conditions of their local communities, along with promoting concern for animals and the environment. Today there are more than 7,500 Roots and Shoots chapters in 90 countries - including two on Martha's Vineyard.

Her appearance, a joint fund-raising event to benefit the institute along with Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, ended with Ms. Goodall saying, "If we can just get through this terrible apathy, then there is hope for the future." It doesn't rest with the politicians, she added, but with the things we buy and don't buy. "Where is the hope? It is with us."