Jane Goodall: What Chimpanzees Taught Me About Being a Mother

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Jane Goodall headlined “What Chimpanzees Taught Me About Motherhood”:

At age 10, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Tarzan of the Apes” and resolved that I would go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them. I had no thought of becoming a scientist—just a naturalist, an explorer. I never dreamed of living with animals as absolutely exotic as chimpanzees. I would have in fact studied any animal in Africa—I just wanted to be out in the wild.

Almost everyone laughed at me. After all, we had very little money. Africa was so far from London, and we knew little about it. World War II was raging. And I was just a girl. “Dream about something you can achieve,” they said. But I was fortunate to have a supportive mother who told me, “You will have to work hard, take advantage of opportunities, and if you never give up you may find a way.”

The first time I went to Africa, in 1957, I was 23. On the ship heading there I met the pioneering anthropologist Louis Leakey, who suggested that I should work with chimpanzees. He was not at all concerned that I had not been to college—he wanted someone whose mind was uncluttered by the very reductionist thinking of the ethologists of the time. And he felt that women might be more patient out in the field. He did not try to teach me what to do—there was no protocol for me to follow.

It seemed like a crazy undertaking to almost everyone. In those days it was almost unheard of for a young woman to travel abroad on her own. In fact, the British authorities in what is now Tanzania—then Tanganyika, a last outpost of the crumbling British Empire—refused to allow me to go to Gombe national park on my own.

It was my wonderful mother who volunteered to accompany me. While I was out in the forest from dawn to dusk, she stayed in our little camp, and she soon started a “clinic,” handing out aspirins, Epsom salts and other simple medicines to the fishermen who camped along the beach in the fishing season. Thus, from the very start, she helped build up an excellent relationship with the local community. But most importantly, from my point of view, she helped to boost my morale when I returned to camp, weary and depressed.

For in the early days, if I managed to get anywhere near the chimpanzees, they would quickly vanish into the forest, highly suspicious of this strange white ape who had suddenly invaded their world. As days became weeks and weeks became months, I became increasingly depressed. I knew I could gain the chimps’ trust in the end—but I only had money to stay for six months, and there would be no more unless I got results.

When I got back each evening, dejected, Mum would boost my morale by pointing out that, in fact, I was learning quite a lot, albeit from a distance, through binoculars. I had found a peak from which I could overlook two valleys. I learned what foods the chimpanzees were eating—I would go and collect specimens after they had gone. I saw how they sometimes traveled alone, sometimes in different-sized groups. And I was also learning about their different calls.

It was sad that I made my first really significant observation just two weeks after my mother had to return to England. I saw David Greybeard, the first chimpanzee who had begun to lose his fear of me, using a grass stem to fish for termites and stripping leaves from a twig, creating another tool for the same purpose. I knew this would really thrill Leakey, as only humans were thought to use and make tools.

During the years when I spent almost all of my time at Gombe, I got to know the chimpanzees of the Kasakela community as well as I had known my friends at school. Each one had his or her own personality, and they were as different, one from the other, as we are. Three females, Flo, Passion and Patti, taught me about chimpanzee mothering and, moreover, that there are good and not-so-good mothers.

Flo was an excellent mother, protective but not overly so, and also affectionate and playful. Above all, like my own mother, Flo was supportive. When I first got to know her, she must have been well over 40, but even with her teeth worn to the gums and her hair thinning, she would fearlessly charge an adult male baboon if he threatened any of her offspring. She would even go to help her adolescent son, Faben.

Passion was the absolute opposite, seldom waiting for her infant, Pom, to climb onto her back before moving off. She hardly ever played with her, and it was up to Pom to keep out of harm’s way, for Passion would not often go to her aid. Interestingly, she was more attentive to her subsequent infant.

And Patti was so utterly incompetent that she did not even know how to carry her first infant as she traveled and was apt to place her hand under his rump, so his head bumped along the ground. Not surprisingly, he did not live long—and her second infant only survived in spite of Patti’s poor maternal skills. It wasn’t until she had her third baby that she started to show reasonably appropriate maternal behavior.

Both Passion and Patti taught me that while some mothering skills are clearly innate, experience also plays a critical role. Over time I learned that the practice a juvenile daughter gets as she plays with and carries an infant sibling also plays a role in developing her subsequent maternal behavior.

When I arrived from the field to start work on my Ph.D. at Cambridge University, I had never been to university and had no bachelor’s degree. I was shocked when some of the professors told me that I had done my study all wrong. I should not have named the chimpanzees but given them numbers. I could not talk about chimpanzees having personalities or minds capable of solving problems, and I should absolutely not attribute emotional states such as joy, sadness, despair, grief and so on to any animal. That was the height of anthropomorphism, a cardinal sin.

All those things were unique to humans, I was told. Fortunately, I had learned very early on that this was not true—from my dog, Rusty. Anyone who has shared their life in a meaningful way with any animal companion knows that of course they have personalities, emotions and minds. We are part of and not separate from the animal kingdom. But back then, in the mid-1960s, I was told that a scientist must at all times be objective, and that this is not possible if you have any feelings of empathy.

In fact, that isn’t true. Empathy can help you understand, intuitively, the motivation behind certain behavior. This can then serve as a basis for scientific investigation. Is my intuition true or false? In fact, in my opinion, it is a lack of empathy that has enabled scientists to carry out many very cruel experiments on sentient beings. There is so much hard work still required to save chimpanzees and to save this planet—so many challenges to face and hurdles to overcome. But as my mother told me as we sat around the fire at Gombe, tired from a day in the forest, we have to have hope. The hope that tomorrow will bring change. The hope that we shall all do our bit to make this a better world for all.

—Dr. Goodall is an award-winning animal behavior expert who has studied chimpanzees in Tanzania for more than 60 years. This essay is adapted from the new book “Chimpanzee Memoirs: Stories of Studying and Saving our Closest Living Relatives,” edited by Stephen Ross and Lydia Hopper, which will be published on May 10 by Columbia University Press.

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