Kelly McSweeney

Aug 25th 2020

How Chimpanzee Expert Jane Goodall Became an Activist


Jane Goodall fundamentally changed our understanding of chimpanzees, and she dedicated her life to animal welfare and conservation. Born in London in 1934, she was passionate about animals from a young age, but career options were extremely limited for women in science.

“There was no thought of becoming a scientist, because girls weren’t scientists like that in those days,” Goodall told the New York Times.

She read about Doctor Doolittle and Tarzan and dreamed of living with wild animals in Africa, but completed secretarial school and started a career working in advertising. Her scientific career took off when in 1960, she had the opportunity to travel to Kenya to visit a friend.

A 26-Year Chimpanzee Study

While she was in Kenya, Goodall met the influential anthropologist Louis Leakey and quickly impressed him with her work ethic and knowledge of animals. Leakey secured a grant for Goodall to study chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, where she made groundbreaking observations that revealed that chimps are highly intelligent and social animals. She corrected common misunderstandings of chimpanzees and revealed that they aren’t the gentle vegetarians that we expected. They’re actually omnivorous animals that exhibit social behaviors such as affectionate displays of tight family bonds and warfare. Goodall’s study redefined the line between humans and animals when she observed chimps breaking twigs from trees, removing the leaves, and poking them into termite mounds to retrieve the bugs and eat them. This proved that some animals are capable of using and making tools — a skill that had previously differentiated people from animals. At age 26, she was already one of the greatest field scientists of the 20th century, according to National Geographic.

An Accidental Activist

Like many great women in science, Goodall persisted with life’s work even when society expected her to solely focus on being a wife and mother (which she also was). She skipped her undergraduate degree and went straight for a doctorate. According to Britannica, in 1965 she earned a Ph.D. in ethology (the science of animal behavior). Goodall and her family lived at Gombe and continued to study the chimpanzees for 26 years. In 1986, she was compelled to leave her fieldwork and focus on activism.

While at a conference on chimp behavior in different environments, Goodall attended a session on conservation. She learned that habitats were being destroyed, chimpanzees were being poached and growing human populations were encroaching on the chimps’ forests.

“I went to the conference as a scientist, and I left as an activist,” she told the New York Times.

In the years since this epiphany, through the Jane Goodall Institute and affiliated organizations, Goodall has advocated for animal welfare and conservation. She has written books and articles that educate the public and at age 86, she continues to travel the world to inspire people to protect animals and their habitats.

Her comprehensive study of chimpanzees helped us understand the human relationship to chimpanzees and other endangered species. In Gombe, she discovered that people were exploiting the land and animals because they were facing hardships of poverty and lack of education and healthcare. By addressing those challenges, she was able to improve the lives of the people and the chimps at Gombe. This model evolved the way we approach conservation today.