It’s an online video clip that has moved millions – the moment a rescued chimpanzee released back into the wild instinctively turns round to give a grateful hug to Dr Jane Goodall.
Jane hadn’t even met her before her release, but the fairytale ending leaves no doubt about the renowned primatologist’s extraordinary ability to communicate with animals. Against all odds the chimp, called Wounda, discovered close to death’s door, was nursed back to health at the Jane Goodall Institute’s Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo.
After a lifetime of working with animals, even Jane can’t fully describe in words the connection that she has with them. “I have a very good relationship with animals on many levels but I can’t explain it,” she shrugs. “I don’t talk to them, I communicate. They’re different things. I think it’s a gift but you can teach yourself if you love animals,” she insists.
Her own love of animals “fell out of clear blue skies” when, as a little girl, she loved reading about Tarzan and worshipped a toy chimp called Jubilee that her parents’ friends were wrongly convinced would give her nightmares.
Not surprisingly, nobody took her seriously when she revealed her dream to go to Africa and work with animals. “Everybody laughed at me because I was a girl; Africa was a dark continent very far away and I had no money,” she recalls.
What the sceptics hadn’t taken into account was her sheer determination and her mother Vanne’s influence. “I had a wonderful family. My mother told me, ‘Jane, if you really want something and if you work hard, take advantage of the opportunities and never give up, you will somehow find a way’.”
Unable to afford to go to university after leaving school in 1952, she trained as a secretary but quit her London job to return home to Bournemouth and work as a waitress to pay her boat fare to Kenya, to visit a friend’s farm. By 23, she was on her way and by chance, met famous anthropologist and fossil expert Dr Louis Leakey, who hired her as his assistant. At 26, she began studying wild chimpanzees on the shores of Lake Tanganyika after her mother placated the concerned British authorities by agreeing to accompany her for the first three months.
Though initially shy and running away from her, the chimps – who she named individually – grew to trust her. She discovered they were not vegetarians as previously thought, and could make simple tools. Soon it became clear they have emotions, minds and personalities. Her ground-breaking work transformed scientific perceptions about the relationship between animals and humans and she was accepted at Cambridge University to study for a PhD.
Even to this day, there’s nowhere Jane’s happier than being out in the forest. “It is magical being alone there, where I have the feeling that all life is interconnected. I believe in a power greater than us, whatever form that power takes and I’ve felt it very strongly out in the forest,” she says.
When she spoke to Yours from her Bournemouth home, Jane had just returned from Senegal and was about to embark on a North American tour, speaking and raising funds to save other chimps like Wounda through the work of The Jane Goodall Institute, founded in 1988. Celebrating her 80th birthday with a fundraising dinner to help release 60 chimps like Wounda back into the wild, she admits asking people for money is one thing she’s not good at. “I am getting better because, as I’m getting older, I have less time left. When you get to 80 anything can happen at any time, but there’s no point worrying about the future; you have to live each day. I don’t know my schedule because it’s too daunting.”
Jane, who greets audiences in chimpanzee language, spends 300 days a year on the road and admits her three grandchildren are certainly “an added incentive” to save the world. (Jane has one son, Hugo, to her first husband). After an amicable divorce, she married again but was widowed in 1980. Despite her advancing years, slowing down isn’t an option for Jane. “I have to go on. We must learn to live in peace and harmony. Everybody looks at the state of the world and feels helpless. If people have no hope, they give up. I want to give people hope again. Everywhere I go I hear stories of people doing amazing things and I see nature restored. We can change if we change attitude. The point of life is to use it in a meaningful way to make people happy.”
Education is key to helping people and animals
As well as being the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, Jane, a Dame of the British Empire, also runs the Roots & Shoots education programme. The initiative connects tens of thousands of young people in almost 100 countries to make positive change happen for communities, animals and the environment but relies on donations to implement successful community service projects and campaign internationally. If you would like to make a donation call 01590 679573, visit www.rootsnshoots.org.uk or write to the Jane Goodall Institute UK, Suite 2, M Shed, The Shipyard, Bath Road, Lymington SO41 3YL. Visit www.janegoodall.org for more about Dr Jane.
See the moment Wounda the chimp hugs Jane:
Picture courtesy of Paul Lovelace/REX