Outside magazine, October 1997
We're all equal in her eyes
By Michael Nichols
I met Jane Goodall at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1989. I was there to take her picture, and I was nervous as hell. As someone who'd devoted his career to photographing wildlife, I felt as though I were taking a portrait of Mick Jagger. But Goodall was exceedingly gracious, gave me all the time I needed, and in her sly way set a hook in me. Five months later I lay in a Liberian hospital, delirious with malaria, hepatitis, and typhoid, all of which I had contracted while on an undercover assignment, fostered by Goodall, to document the demise of the wild chimpanzee. That's how Jane Goodall works. She locks onto you and casts her odd spell. And before you know it, you're doing her bidding.
Because Goodall is such a relentless and persuasive activist, it's sometimes easy to forget that she's also a world-class scientist who revolutionized the way we look at the world. Her 1986 book The Chimpanzees of Gombe is the seminal volume of primatology (Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has called it "one of the Western world's great scientific achievements"). Crouched in the Tanzanian bush with a notebook, binoculars, and titanic reserves of patience, Goodall turned a G-rated jungle into a Scorsese flick. Chimps, she taught us, aren't cuddly ambassadors from the peaceable kingdom; they're complex, mercurial creatures, capable of murder, cannibalism, and a thousand little cruelties. They nurture and groom and kiss one another, yes, but they also build dark coalitions, hatch intrigues, even practice their own style of ethnic cleansing.
Fascinated by individual personalities, Goodall broke the conventions of field science by giving her study subjects names (Freud, Flo, Frodo) instead of numbers, and she followed their progress over generations, a sustained intimacy that allowed her to meet the whole intricate cast of chimp society ù matriarchs and bullies, orphans and outcasts. Perhaps her most important breakthrough came in 1960, her first year at her Gombe research station, when she witnessed a chimpanzee using a carefully trimmed blade of grass to extract termites from a nest, thus shattering the anthropocentric notion that Homo sapiens is the only species that uses tools.
Thirty-seven years later, the Gombe project is still in progress, the longest-running wildlife field study in the world. But Goodall has left its day-to-day operation to the next generation of primatologists. Now 63, she spends most of her time flying around the world, cajoling celebrities and political figures and delivering sold-out lectures to raise money for the Connecticut-based Jane Goodall Institute.
Much of the institute's funding pays for the maintenance of six chimpanzee orphanages that she has established across Africa. Enormously costly to run, these sanctuaries, as she calls them, are the source of bitter criticism from primatologists who believe Goodall should spend her incomparable clout trying to save what little habitat remains for the wild chimpanzee rather than depleting her resources on what they view as a sentimental lost cause.
I've occasionally approached her with this criticism, and her reply is unequivocal. Ninety-eight percent of the genetic material of the chimpanzee is identical to ours. Look into the eyes of an infant chimp whose mother has been killed for bushmeat, and you cannot walk away. Call it a weakness, if you like, but it's the source of her greatest strength: Whether she's adopting her latest orphan in Kigoma or tapping her next recruit in New York, Jane Goodall always keeps her sights on the individual.