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Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed of living with animals in faraway Africa. Her name was Jane.
Jane Goodall was a secretary when her boss offered her the unique opportunity to travel to Africa and observe chimpanzees. Jane, who adored animals as a girl, traveled to Gombe where she spent three months observing, and spending time with the primates. Some of what she observed rocked the scientific community around the world, shaping how we understand the animal kingdom today
Cristina Mittermeier, a Marine Biologist, activist and conservation photographer. Cristina founded the International League of Conservation Photographers, and is the co-founder of SeaLegacy, a non-proﬁt organization dedicated to the protection of our oceans.
CRISTINA MITTERMEIER Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed of living with animals in faraway Africa. One day, that dream would come true—and her discoveries about chimpanzees would forever change the way people see animals. Her name was Jane Goodall.
MITTERMEIER As a child, Jane lived in Bournemouth, England. She spent hours as a watcher—quietly observing the animals outside. She kept earthworms underneath her pillow (until she learned they were happier in dirt). She tamed a robin by leaving a trail of crumbs on her windowsill, slowly coaxing it inside. Eventually, it built a nest in her bookcase!
Once, Jane waited inside the henhouse, refusing to wiggle even though the rough straw scratched her skin. She was watching the chickens to see how they laid eggs. Finally, one appeared—and so did Jane, running to tell her mother, “I know how an egg comes out!” Meanwhile, her mother had been searching for Jane for hours! But she always encouraged Jane’s curiosity.
Jane’s father encouraged her love of animals, too. When she was a baby, he bought her “Jubilee,” a special stuffed toy sold in honor of the first chimpanzee born at the London Zoo. Jubilee was Jane’s constant companion, tagging along on all her adventures.
MITTERMEIER I’m Cristina Mittermeier. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Dr. Jane Goodall.
MITTERMEIER Jane was born Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall in London in 1934. When World War II began, her father, Mortimer—a former race-car driver—joined the British Army to fight in France. Jane; her mother, Vanne; and her younger sister, Judy, moved to a redbrick home by the sea in Bournemouth. There, the Goodall family grew with many beloved pets: cats, dogs, guinea pigs, a terrapin, a canary, and even a tortoise—who kept disappearing, so they painted his shell bright red.
Jane once said, “Growing up, I was shy and always wanted to be outside playing. Most often I could be found sitting high in the limbs of a beech tree in our backyard. I read and did my homework up there.”
Up on her perch, Jane loved to read stories about Doctor Dolittle, a character who talked to animals in Africa. She also became a big fan of the character Tarzan. She fell “passionately in love with Tarzan and was jealous that he married the wrong Jane.” Reading those stories, she began to dream of going to Africa herself. By age ten, Jane’s goal was to “live with wild animals and write books about them.”
MITTERMEIER When she told others of her dream, everybody laughed and told her that she was just a girl. Everybody except her mother, who said if Jane really wanted something, she should work hard, take advantage of opportunities, and never give up. Vanne never told her she couldn’t do something because she was a girl. Jane never forgot her mother’s advice.
Though Jane was shy, that didn’t prevent her from sharing her passion for wildlife with others. At age twelve, she formed the Alligator Club with her sister Judy and two friends, Sally and Sue. They made a “museum” to store artifacts like feathers, seashells, and detailed nature notebooks, while Jane put together “The Alligator Magazine” to showcase their findings. The nature club even raised money to help old horses.
MITTERMEIER Jane was a good student, but her family couldn’t afford college. Vanne had just enough money for Jane to attend secretarial school to learn the skills needed for office work. Jane eventually got a job filing at Oxford University, which she found boring—though her supervisor did let her bring her pet hamster, Hamlette, to work.
A friend helped Jane get a different job in London with a studio that made documentaries. Jane enjoyed editing film and choosing background music. Big-city life in London was exciting. But Jane still longed to be in nature.
Then, an opportunity arrived in the form of a letter from a school friend. The friend’s family had a farm in Kenya, and she was inviting Jane to spend six months there with her. Of course Jane was happy to accept—but she couldn’t afford the expensive ticket to Africa.
That wouldn’t stop Jane. She left her job, moved back home, and began working as a waitress. Jane was quite good at it—she could balance as many as thirteen plates on her arms! All the money she earned waiting tables, she saved under the parlor rug. After five months, she had enough for a ticket. Just as her mother had told her, Jane didn’t give up, and now her dream was coming true. On March 13, 1957, Jane stood on the dock, ready to board the ship Kenya Castle. Except there was one problem: Her passport was missing!
MITTERMEIER The passport must’ve fallen out of her purse and Jane couldn’t leave without it. Her plans seemed dashed—until an employee from the travel agency raced toward the ship, with Jane’s travel documents in hand. Someone had returned them to the agency, just in the nick of time. The ship set sail… with Jane on board.
Many passengers struggled with seasickness, but Jane spent much of the three weeks at the prow of the ship, in her words, “as forward as one could get.” She couldn’t wait to reach Mombasa. From there, she took a train to her friend’s farm. Jane finally arrived on April 3, 1957—her twenty-third birthday. They even had cake for her! But her best birthday present was spotting a wild giraffe running alongside the winding dirt road.
Jane felt at home in Africa from the moment she arrived.
MITTERMEIER To stay however, she needed a job. Friends suggested she reach out to Louis Leakey, a famous scientist. He and his wife, Mary, who was also a scientist, studied fossils together. The couple discovered some of humans’ earliest ancestors at a place called Olduvai Gorge.
When Jane and Louis met, he was impressed by Jane’s enthusiasm for the natural world and her adventurous spirit. As his secretary, Jane joined the Leakeys at Olduvai. Working there required long hours spent crouched in the dirt, painstakingly brushing fossils free. Jane didn’t have training for these tasks, but she learned quickly.
Louis believed chimpanzees could help him better understand humans’ ancestors. But no one had ever observed them long-term in the wild. Louis wanted to send someone to do a study of chimps at Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania, now called Gombe National Park. His ideal candidate would have excellent observational skills, an open mind, deep patience, and know how to survive in the wild.
While hiking at Olduvai, Jane and a friend had encountered a male lion—a dangerous situation while unarmed. When Jane recounted the story to Louis around the campfire, he told her she’d done everything right. According to Jane, it was right then that Louis made his decision about who should research the chimpanzees.
Jane was perfect for the job.
MITTERMEIER In June 1960, Jane set off for Gombe. But she wasn’t alone—she brought her mother along! Officials refused to allow Jane to stay there by herself—they didn’t think it was safe for a young woman to be alone. Always supportive, Vanne couldn’t let this opportunity pass her daughter by. So mother and daughter shared a small army tent and met up in the evenings to talk about their daily adventures. Vanne kept busy with her own project: a clinic where she provided medical care.
The pair faced many threats in their early days at Gombe: leaping leopards, biting tsetse flies, prickling vines. Jane and her mother both contracted malaria and were sick for three weeks. Vanne’s fever reached a dangerous 105 degrees before they both recovered. But fear didn’t stop Jane. “It was so fascinating that nothing could deter me,” she later said.
By October, Vanne returned to England. As much as Jane loved sharing the campsite with her mother, she relished her time alone in the forest. Jane knew that too much noise and activity scared away the animals. At first, whenever they spotted her, they would dash away. She could only watch them at a distance, with binoculars.
Jane worked hard to slowly establish the chimpanzees’ trust. She dressed in a simple outfit that blended in with the forest surroundings—and she wore the same clothes every day. She mimicked the chimps’ behavior. Each day, she’d pack her tin box with a blanket, sweater, food, and coffee, and prepare to spend hours upon hours silently sitting, waiting, and always observing.
MITTERMEIER Most scientists at the time preferred to give the animals they observed numbers instead of names. But as Jane grew to know the Gombe chimps—and their distinct personalities—she named them all. Flo was a popular older female chimp, and a caring mother to Fabien, Figan, and baby Fifi.
Not all of the chimps were always caring. One chimp once charged at Jane, causing her to tumble off the edge of a cliff! She was injured but okay, thanks to soft bushes that broke her fall.
Her favorite chimp was David Greybeard. He was the first to let Jane get close—perhaps he was as curious about her as she was about him! Unlike the others, when Jane approached him, David didn’t run. He came to accept her, even taking a banana from her hand. “So gently. No snatching,” she wrote in a letter home.
It was thanks to David that Jane made two important discoveries. First, she saw him eating a bush pig. Prior to that, scientists had believed that chimpanzees only ate plants. Now, she had evidence that they were omnivores.
The second, and more important, discovery happened when Jane watched David at a termite mound. He broke off a long stalk of grass and inserted it into the mound. When he pulled it out, it was covered in termites—a tasty snack! Soon, Jane saw other chimpanzees “fishing” with grasses, and also stripping sticks of their leaves to make crude tools—something scientists call “object modification.” Till then, it was thought only humans could do that. According to Jane, this was cause to either “redefine man, or accept chimps as human.” Her careful observations—as a twenty-six-year-old self-taught scientist—were a breakthrough in understanding animals.
MITTERMEIER Before those discoveries, Jane had feared that funding for her project at Gombe would be cut because she hadn’t learned anything new. But after she documented the chimps using tools, the National Geographic Society gave a grant to continue Jane’s work.
Some critics tried to discredit Jane because she hadn’t received academic training beyond high school. So Louis helped her get admitted to Cambridge University. They recognized the value of her work at Gombe and counted that toward her classes. Eventually, Jane would earn a doctorate from Cambridge in 1962, becoming Dr. Jane Goodall.
National Geographic wanted to publish a magazine article about Jane’s work, but it was hard for her to take pictures in the midst of her observations. So they arranged for a wildlife photographer, Hugo van Lawick, to join Jane. At first, she wasn’t happy to have a stranger in what she called her “little paradise.” But she was pleased to find out that Hugo loved nature and animals as much as she did.
National Geographic published Jane’s first article, “My Life Among Wild Chimpanzees,” with Hugo’s photographs in 1963. And in 1965, CBS aired the television special Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, a documentary National Geographic made with Hugo’s footage. Twenty million viewers watched, fascinated by Jane’s bravery, knowledge, and hard work. Quickly, she became a worldwide celebrity.
MITTERMEIER As Jane grew to know and love the chimpanzees at Gombe, they became like a family to her. She’d later say, “What an amazing privilege it was to be utterly accepted by a wild animal.”
Flo, Fifi, David Greybeard, and the rest weren’t Jane’s only family at Gombe, though. Jane and Hugo fell in love there. After his assignment ended and he left Gombe, Hugo sent Jane an urgent telegram—would she marry him? She answered yes. The top of their wedding cake was decorated with a clay figurine of David Greybeard. Pictures of their chimpanzee friends lined the walls at their London reception.
In 1964, Flo gave birth to another baby, Flint, giving Jane an opportunity to observe chimpanzee mothering from the very start. Flo gave Flint lots of cuddles. When he was being naughty, she distracted him instead of punishing him. She was playful with her children. Jane learned that like people, chimpanzees laugh when they play!
Watching Flo’s caring, patient mothering was an inspiration to Jane when she and Hugo had their son, whom they nicknamed “Grub.” Jane had to spend more time keeping Grub safe as a toddler at Gombe, so her students spent more time in the field. Meanwhile, Jane began writing books and continued making films with Hugo.
MITTERMEIER As Jane’s fame grew and family responsibilities changed, she spent less time alone in the forest, observing animals. Jane’s books were so popular, she would spend months away while sharing them with readers. More eager students joined Jane at Gombe, to learn and assist with her work. In 1977, the Jane Goodall Institute was founded there to study and protect chimpanzees.
In 1986, Jane attended a conference that made her aware of the threats to wild chimpanzees. In some places in Africa, they were being hunted. In other parts of the world, they were kept in cages for research. This horrified Jane. “I arrived at the conference as a scientist. I left as an activist,” she later said. She became “committed to conservation and education” and took action to help chimpanzees right away.
One of the ways they were being threatened was by deforestation. Fewer trees meant less food and less land for chimpanzees. So Jane started a program, called TACARE, to help communities live sustainably and plant more trees.
Another of Jane’s programs, ChimpanZoo, works to protect chimpanzees in captivity. It makes sure places like zoos have enriching, healthy living environments.
MITTERMEIER She also has a kids’ program called Roots & Shoots. It has members in more than 130 countries who learn about animals and how to protect nature. In some ways, it reminds Jane of her early days leading a nature club with Judy, Sally, and Sue. Jane explained, “The Alligator Club had only four members. . . . Roots & Shoots is encouraging hundreds of thousands of young people to take action and try to make this a better world for all living things.”
MITTERMEIER Today, the Gombe chimp observation that Jane started is the longest continuous study of any animal in their natural habitat in history.
Jane still keeps a small house at Gombe. It is the same one she lived in with Hugo and Grub. According to Jane, “the best days of my life” were spent there. People sometimes ask why she doesn’t spend more time there now. The answer is: She still has work to do!
Jane travels around 300 days each year, all over the world. She’s never in one place for longer than three weeks! She has too much important information about animal advocacy and conservation to share. And she’s spreading an equally important message about how we must all “show respect and love for living things around us, especially each other.” Now Jane’s role is “to make sure that the next generation are better stewards than we’ve been” to the earth.
And whenever Jane visits her childhood home in England, she’s greeted by an old friend. Eighty-five years after Jane first received the gift from her father, her beloved stuffed chimp Jubilee still sits on her dresser. He’s “hairless from all the loving” Jane has given him—much like the love she’s shared for animals and with the world.
Today’s episode was hosted by Cristina Mittermeier, a Marine Biologist, activist and conservation photographer.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media.
Our Executive Producer is Elena Favilli, and Dan Ilani. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager. This episode was written by Rebecca Behrens and edited by Maithy Vu. Proofread by Danielle Oberdier.
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli was the sound mixer.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!