Maria Shriver

Five Defining Moments In One Exceptional Life: Jane Goodall

Jane and David Greybeard.

Today is Jane Goodall’s 80th birthday and the world-renowned primatologist, conservationist, bestselling author, and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, has a great deal to celebrate, including the publication of her new book, “Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants."

Here, Goodall shares five of her defining moments: experiences which have influenced her, challenged her, and summoned her to the life-long mission she follows to this day.

Photo from My Life with the Chimpanzees book by Jane Goodall
The Goodall family at the Birches during World War II. Jane, Judy, father Mortimer, and mother Vanne. Goodall Family

At the end of World War II, I saw a photo of emaciated holocaust survivors when they were first liberated and another showing a pile of dead bodies. Seeing those images forever changed my understanding of human nature.

In 1956 I received a letter from my school friend, Marie-Claude Mange, inviting me to go for a visit to her parents newly acquired farm in Kenya. That led to my saving up and going to Africa by boat, which is when I heard about and met Louis Leakey. It was Louis who first suggested that I should go and study chimpanzees.

In 1960, I realized the significance of what I had just observed in the forests of Gombe – a chimpanzee called David Greybeard using and making tools to fish for termites. At that time, it was believed that only humans used and made tools – we were defined as “Man the Tool Maker" – so what I had witnessed was hugely significant.

First photo ever taken of a chimpanzee using a tool to fish for termites. David Greybeard in Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve, 1960. Jane Goodall

Following the divorce from my first husband, I went through an emotionally difficult time. I remember going to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in G Minor filled the ancient space with glorious sound just as the sun lit up the great rose window. In that moment, I realized that chance could not be responsible for it all: the composer, his music, the architects and the majestic cathedral, the atmosphere created by the people who had prayed and confessed and wept and gloried their God. And my mind was able to comprehend that a whole fantastic sequence of events had led to my being there at that moment.

I’ll never forget how I felt after the big conference “Understanding Chimpanzees” in Chicago in 1986. During the proceedings, I was utterly shocked to realize how chimpanzee numbers and African forests were declining. I was sickened by the secretly filmed video of chimpanzees in medical research laboratories in cages 5’ X 5’ X 7’ foot high. Without any conscious decision, I became an activist, leaving the forest paradise of which I had dreamed as a child to do my best to help chimpanzees – and subsequently other animals, people and our precious planet.

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