Legendary primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall speaks at Legacy Park for International Day of PeaceDr. Jane Goodall kisses a leaf of a service berry tree after helping put dirt at the base of the tree on Sept. 21, 2023, at Legacy Park in Decatur. Photo by Zoe Seiler.
This story has been updated.
Decatur, GA — Dr. Jane Goodall, best known for her groundbreaking research on wild chimpanzees in Tanzania, spoke at an International Day of Peace Youth Celebration in Decatur’s Legacy Park on Sept. 21.
Goodall spoke of growing up in London during World War II, amid bombing raids and food rationing. At the age of 10, Goodall decided that she wanted to go to Africa and study animals.
“Everybody laughed at me,” Goodall said. Women weren’t scientists then, she said, and Goodall’s family didn’t have the money to send her to university.
The only person who didn’t tell Goodall to forget Africa and dream about something achievable was her mother.
“She said, Jane, if you really want to do this, you’ll have to work very hard and take advantage of every opportunity, and if you don’t give up, hopefully you’ll find your way,” Goodall said.
At 18, Goodall worked first as a secretary and then as a waitress in order to earn money to travel to Africa. Once there, she met a man in Kenya who needed a secretary.
That man was paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who went on to make the discoveries that established Africa as the place where humanity originated.
Leakey was impressed by her willingness and capacity to learn and her level-headed response to a lion encounter. He decided she was the person he’d been looking for to conduct a first-ever study of wild chimpanzees, and sent her to Tanzania.
“I only had six months, you see, and the first four months the chimps all ran away from me. But I knew I could earn their trust,” Goodall said.
Goodall described the moment that she saw a chimpanzee she’d named David Greybeard using a blade of grass to get termites out of a mound.
That first observation of tool use by a non-human transformed scientific understanding of animal intelligence and earned her a grant, a career, and a place in history.
Goodall told her audience not to let circumstances or obstacles hold them back.
“Follow your dreams,” Goodall said.
Goodall said that she would have preferred to stay in the forest and learn about chimpanzees for the rest of her life, but felt compelled to act on what she saw happening in the rest of the world.
“We don’t live in peaceful times,” Goodall said.
Goodall said that chimpanzees are very much like humans, in good and bad ways. They are capable of violence, even a form of war, but also compassion and altruism.
Goodall spoke about slavery and the Holocaust as examples of humanity’s capacity for cruelty and violence.
“We have a nasty streak,” Goodall said.
Yet at the same time, Goodall described the power of individuals to create a different kind of society.
“Every single day you live, every single day on this planet…you make a difference. And you can choose what kind of difference you make,” Goodall said.
Speaking to an audience dominated by children, Goodall emphasized their power to change the future.
“Fighting is not a word that’s associated with peace, but if we’re fighting for freedom, for justice, justice to people, justice to sentient animals, then fighting is a good word,” Goodall said.
Later, Goodall described the stakes more starkly.
“Everywhere around the world people are losing hope, and when they lose hope they fall into action and do nothing. If we don’t get together and take action right now to slow down climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and the horrors of industrial farming and so on, we’re doomed,” Goodall said.
Goodall said that was why she started Roots and Shoots in Tanzania in 1991, a program for K-12 youth that will soon have a Basecamp in Atlanta.
“The young people have got to try and atone for and make up for the mess that we’ve made, and move into a different kind of future,” Goodall said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Goodall’s youth program. The story has been updated with the correct information.
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