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Op-Ed: Why I Got Off the Jane Goodall Bandwagon

I met Jane Goodall in 2008 at the Governors’ Global Climate Summit in California. She was giving a speech on the importance of personalizing wildlife to bolster conservation efforts. Though she didn’t have much novel to say, Goodall was charming and inspiring, and I left the auditorium with a toothy grin plastered on my face.

After her talk, I was honored with the opportunity to speak with Dr. Goodall in a group with five other high schoolers. Her unimposing stature and genuine enthusiasm for us “young conservationists” quickly stole my heart.

It’s easy to love Jane Goodall. The classic photo of the young Jane reaching an outstretched hand to a tentative baby chimpanzee lends a tenderness to the researcher that seems to permeate the American conscience. She has done a lot of good for humanizing conservation efforts (and I say humanizing, rather than “increasing accessibility to,” consciously). Aside from the obvious bias it gave to her research, naming individual chimpanzees and tracing their relationships made many people care about environmental preservation.

But there is, I think, a point at which Goodall adoration goes too far. Jane Goodall came to Stanford in the early 1970s as a visiting professor for the Department of Psychiatry. Her primary research site in the ‘70s was Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, where she and her researchers studied the social and courtship behaviors of chimpanzees.

In 1975, Goodall took four students – including two Stanford undergrads and a Stanford Ph.D. candidate – to Tanzania to make field observations. Just over 30 miles from their field site, Laurent Kabila, a rebel leader actively working to overthrow the Tanzanian government, had established a heavily armed camp.

In the middle of the night, the four research assistants were beaten and taken at gunpoint as prisoners of Kabila. Goodall, meanwhile, was tipped off by a Tanzanian guard and scooted off into the thick jungle.

The prisoners were kept in squalid conditions and put up for ransom. Not Dr. Goodall, nor the U.S. government, nor the University would pay the ransom, claiming it would be ceding a small victory to a war criminal. Eventually, the families of the kidnapped victims raised over $460,000 to pay Kabila’s ransom and have the prisoners released.

I don’t mean to place the blame on Goodall here. By no means should she have been expected to pay the ransom, nor to exchange herself for the research assistants, as some claim. But she should have spoken out, demanded action. Ask yourself: how would she have responded if Kabila had captured four chimpanzees and imprisoned them in mud huts for weeks?

Instead, Goodall took her research out of Tanzania and back to Stanford campus. Her research station is still standing – abandoned just between SLAC and Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. The concrete building is lined with iron bars, behind which Goodall’s “wild” chimpanzees were caged. The chimps were observed, for months at a time, to establish psychosocial patterns in their behavior – their “normal” behavior when kept in cement boxes.

This isn’t an argument against animal experimentation, which I believe does have a place in behavioral science. And Dr. Jane Goodall has done incredible work on publicizing conservation efforts by humanizing her chimpanzee specimens. But as many of you watched the petite, dynamic woman speak in Cemex on Sunday, I hope you know her as more than just the “chimp lady” before falling in love with Jane Goodall’s celebrity.

Mark Bessen ‘15

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