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Jane Goodall: Chimps’ best friend

A childhood fascination leads to a wild career

The Columbian
Published: June 5, 2015, 12:00am

Much of what we know about how chimpanzees behave is thanks to one person: Jane Goodall.

Goodall has spent decades in the eastern African nation of Tanzania observing chimpanzees, and a new book, “Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall,” is filled with vibrant photos and stories of her life and her important discoveries.

Several other kids’ books have been published about Goodall because of her work in primatology, which is the study of mammals such as apes and monkeys. But “Untamed’s” author, Anita Silvey, wanted to write this book because it covers the 81-year-old scientist’s career up through the present. “Her entire life fascinated me,” Silvey says.

The book begins with Goodall’s childhood in England, where she was a keen observer of her many pets and of other local animals. She loved being in nature and reading such books as “The Story of Doctor Dolittle,” which is about a veterinarian who travels to Africa and learns to communicate with animals.

Silvey, who is an expert in children’s literature, says, “A lot of reading in childhood is about thinking, ‘Is this a road map for my life? Is there something I can learn here that’s actually a way for my life to go?’ “

When she was in her early 20s, Goodall got an invitation from a school friend to visit Africa. She became obsessed with the idea and worked hard to earn enough money to get there. Silvey says, “I don’t think that’s what many other people would do.”

Once she was in Africa, Goodall quickly got herself a job with Louis Leakey, a famous scientist who was studying humans’ early development. He encouraged her and helped her study chimpanzees in the wild.

At the Gombe Stream Game Reserve (now a national park) in Tanzania, Goodall transformed the scientific research of animals. Silvey says Goodall “focused on chimpanzees as individuals, with distinct personalities. At the time, the scientific community recorded animals as numbers — she insisted that every individual chimp mattered and every one was unique.”

The book’s wonderful photographs, including four pages of a chimpanzee “family scrapbook,” provide a sense of the animals’ distinct personalities and also reveal the trusting relationships Goodall developed with many of the chimps she studied.

Silvey makes it clear that Goodall faced many difficulties: “It wasn’t easy for her, but she is somebody who overcomes the next obstacle. Whatever it is, she finds a solution.”

“It’s not that everyone can have Jane Goodall’s story,” Silvey says. “But her story tells kids that if you love something, if you really want something, you can have an impact on the world. She took a childhood passion and made it into a career and the cause of her life.”

Goodall has traveled the world working to improve the treatment of chimpanzees and other great apes. Throughout “Untamed,” Silvey offers suggestions on helping endangered animals and addressing other problems. Says Silvey, “I tried to incorporate both some simple things and some more significant ways for kids to get involved.” As Goodall writes in the book’s introduction, “You make a difference every single day. And you get to choose what sort of difference you want to make.”