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Reaching Across the Species Barrier: Jane Goodall on Chimpanzees

The following remarks were made at a press conference and lecture sponsored by Focus on Animals and ARIES, the Animal Rights Information & Education Service. Orion's editor George K. Russell was present and asked some of the questions.

What is the status of the chimp population in Africa today?

Jane Goodall: The situation for chimpanzees in the wild is quite fragile. Epidemic diseases such as polio and pneumonia can suddenly decimate a community. Chimpanzee populations everywhere are decreasing at an alarming rate. Over the past thirty years, there has been no overall increase in the population at Gombe--even in this protected national park.

How much grimmer is the situation outside the national parks, across the chimpanzees' range in Africa! Once they were present in twenty-five African countries; they have already been totally exterminated in four; they are almost gone from five others; and there are only five countries where they are present in healthy populations of more than 5,000. The maximum number of chimps left in the wild is 250,000 and it could be much, much less. At the turn of the century there were millions.

Is loss of habitat the main reason for the decline, as is the case with so many mammal species?

Goodall: In part. It is also because in many African countries mothers are shot so the infants can be sold as pets, for entertainment, or for biomedical research.

This method of capture is not only cruel, but also very wasteful. We reckon that up to ten chimps die for every baby that makes it to its final destination. Most hunters use old flintlocks or muzzle loaders. Often mothers are wounded--they manage to creep away, but later they die and their infants with them. And sometimes the shot that kills a mother hits and kills her infant too. When babies are captured alive, they often fall sick and die for lack of proper food or care, cramped into tiny baskets on the long journey from the place where their mother was killed. Yet others will die as they are shipped from the dealer to wherever they are going.

Are we going toward a situation where most of the chimps are captive?

Goodall: Not yet. In this country there are probably about 1,500 chimps in medical research, another 400 in zoos, another 200 as pets, and in various roadside shows that nobody knows very much about--that's something we are investigating. Then of course there are captive chimps and lab chimps in Europe, Japan, Russia, all over the world--we have no idea just how many. There's a lot of smuggling, a lot of illegal trade.

There was panic stockpiling in some labs because chimps at one time were perceived as the best model for studying AIDS. They are not, according to the World Health Organization and many leading AIDS researchers in Europe and the United States, including Dr. Robert Gallo. But many still argue for the vital role played by chimps--often, I suspect, because they have chimps and need grants to maintain their labs. AIDS is a good buzzword for getting federal dollars.

The Jane Goodall Institute has battled for better conditions for chimpanzees in research. Does that mean you think they should be used in research?

Goodall: My position on using any live animals in research is that it is extraordinarily arrogant of us. It is arrogant and domineering of us to think that we have the right to take other animals and use them this way, for our own benefit.

Unfortunately, if we were to stop all experimentation on live animals tomorrow, medical research would be thrown into great confusion for a while--animal research is widely believed to be indispensable to progress in medical research.

I refuse to accept this. Already because of increased public awareness of animal suffering many alternatives to the use of live animals have been found. These methods--in vitro testing, computer simulation, and so on--are often more reliable and cheaper than the barbaric animal tests they can replace. We must search even harder for alternatives, spend more money and perhaps create a few Nobel Prizes as carrots for those involved. In the meantime we should be using as few animals as possible and only for research perceived as leading to medical breakthroughs beneficial to thousands of humans.

Almost everyone longs for the day when the cages in the labs will stand empty. But it will not happen tomorrow. And in the meantime, we must fight to give the inmates the best deal possible while they are being used to suit our needs.

How has your plea on behalf of laboratory animals been received by the scientific community?

Goodall: In some quarters it has not been well received at all. There is a definite hostility directed toward me. Behind it is a feeling, "If Jane gets her way and we are forced to make these improvements in the living conditions of the chimpanzees, it's going to cost a lot of money. And that's the thin end of the wedge--having made the improvements for chimps, she's going to want to make improvements for monkeys, and dogs, and cats."

And you bet I am! The chimp for me is the bridge; it crosses this supposedly unbridgeable chasm between us and them.

How so?

Goodall: We now know that chimpanzees have many abilities that we once thought were unique to us. We thought that only we could reason, that only we could solve problems, that only we were able to plan for the future and remember details from the past, that only we could understand and use abstract symbols in communicating.

We now know that chimpanzees can do all these things--and more. The sign language experiments have shown that chimps can easily learn up to 300 signs of the American Sign Language (ASL) for the deaf. They can use these signs in communication with their trainer and with each other. And we know that chimpanzees have a sense of humor and some sort of concept of self. We know that they share with us emotions such as joy and sadness, rage, fear, pain, and despair.

I think it is a very sad reflection on science that whereas many scientists have been eager to point to the physiological similarities between humans and chimpanzees and say, "Ah, here's our closest living relative, a wonderful model for investigating the nature of a cure for human disease," many have been reluctant to admit to the equally striking similarities between humans and chimpanzees in the sphere of behavior and cognition and emotion. It is the reluctance to admit these similarities that has created the horrifying situations in the biomedical research labs.

What is the situation in research labs in this country?

Goodall: One of the very worst is just outside Washington, D.C., a lab called S.E.M.A. When I visited there in March of 1987, I saw pairs of three-year-old chimps crammed into cages measuring twenty-two inches by twenty-two inches and two feet high. Each cage was pushed into something that looked like a microwave oven with a little panel of glass at the top. The only contact with the outside world was through a vent with air roaring in. It was so dark in those cages that the technicians had to use flashlights to see what the chimps were doing.

Those pairs of chimps weren't even being used in medical research. They were just waiting in quarantine, stacked up one on top of the other. Since my visit the metal chambers have gone, but the cages are the same. After quarantine the chimps are caged singly, denied contact with a companion.

What happens to chimps in these conditions? Exactly what you would find if human children were put in those conditions. They become psychotic, they rock back and forth, they give up, they show despair. A preverbal human child and a young chimpanzee have just about the same intellectual ability and share the same emotional needs for affection, reassurance, love, and contact.

We would not treat our most hardened criminals this way, yet these chimpanzees are innocent of any crime. That man who has just killed half his family and slit his little girl's throat--do you think he's sitting in a cage this size? If we stand by and allow this sort of thing to happen, we make a mockery of justice.

Do you see any signs of change in the treatment of laboratory chimpanzees? Do you feel that your particular efforts have enhanced the status of chimpanzees?

Goodall: I think there is hope. The labs are not always as grim as the one I described. That was the worst. At Southwest Biomedical Foundation in Texas almost all the chimps have access to the outside and most are at least housed in pairs. When I visit labs and talk with the technicians--I prefer to call them caregivers--I find they are beginning to understand the chimpanzees better.

Through the Jane Goodall Institute we have set up an enrichment program in LEMSIP, one of the biggest chimp labs in the country, with more than 250 chimps. The conditions are horrendous--five by five foot cages seven feet high, the chimps mostly single caged for what could be fifty years.

Mark Bodamer, a Ph.D. candidate, worked there at LEMSIP for four months. Mark had worked with Washoe (the first chimp to learn ASL) and her group. At LEMSIP he shared his understanding of chimpanzee behavior with the technicians. He suggested ways of enriching the dreary, bleak lives of the lab chimps and helped the technicians to better appreciate the continual needs of the chimps in their care. To give them a better understanding of the intellectual abilities of chimpanzees, he provided the chimps with unbreakable mirrors, brushes, combs, toothbrushes, or with thick plastic tubes stuffed with raisins and marshmallows that must be poked out with willow twigs--they can pull the leaves off the twigs and eat them, too.

Sometimes a tub of frozen Koolaid is placed on the floor below the bars of the cage--these wretched creatures live on bars, not just bars at the sides, but bars underneath, too. The chimp is then given a coil of thin plastic tubing. To get a drink he must carefully poke the tube down through the bars--it's difficult because the tubing bends in various directions. After drinking the melted liquid the tube must be coiled and placed in a safe place so it does not fall to the ground. Then it can be used again when more Koolaid is melted.

Now when I walk into that place it's still a nightmare for me, but nevertheless the chimps seem to respond differently. They look up. They immediately anticipate that something nice is going to happen, instead of just somebody coming in to draw blood. The atmosphere among the technicians is also different now. Many are proud of their chimps--"Gosh, this David, he's so intelligent. Look what he can do."

The veterinarian, Dr. Jim Mahoney, is a caring and compassionate man. He is unhappy with the conditions. He stays so he can help the chimps. He and Mark Bodamer made a film, a video, showing the chimps doing all those things they do. When the director of the lab, Dr. Moor-Janowski, saw it, he told me that although he knew about the Gombe chimps using tools and had heard me describe their complex social life, their emotions, their intelligence, none of this had made such an impact on him as watching the video of his chimps performing complex tasks. Another lab director said the same thing when shown the video.

It is easy to understand why this was so. Chimps in a lab, deprived of all basic needs for their well-being, cannot behave like wild chimps. Those working with them do not, for the most part, want to admit that their chimps are, in fact, quite as remarkable, intelligent, and aware as their wild counterparts. Once admitted, it becomes even harder to treat them as living test tubes. But seeing the lab chimps behaving with intelligence, the distinction blurs. There is no question but that this change in attitude is helpful to the chimps.

You have shown over the years that it is extraordinarily interesting to study chimpanzees for their own sake. Another rationale for their study is to learn something about ourselves. What are your thoughts on what we might learn about ourselves from studying chimpanzees?

Goodall: The first thing we have learned is to be a little humble. Learning about chimpanzees gives us a better perspective on our own place in nature. But there are also ways in which the understanding of chimpanzees helps us understand ourselves better. The one that strikes me as the most significant is the effect of early experience and the types of mothering on the behavior of the individual when it becomes adult.

For example, in chimp society there are good mothers and bad mothers, the good mothers being affectionate, tolerant, playful, and protective, and the bad mothers being rather harsh and intolerant. A chimp raised by a good mother tends to be more self-confident, attain a higher rank, and, most important of all, is better able to form relaxed relationships with other individuals when it becomes an adult. If this is true for humans, and there is some literature now that suggests it is, it lays a great responsibility on parents, on families--not just the mother, the father too--if they embark on what should be seen as a terrific responsibility: bringing a new life into this world. They must think very carefully how that new life should be treated during its early, formative years, because it is going to make such a difference in the future. And it is not only mothers and fathers, it is society that has to address this issue. We need to consider, for example, the way day-care centers are run. We have created a materialistic, competitive society where parents feel that going out and working is necessary--and it often is to be able to live. What is that doing to our children?

Some people say that wild animals should be allowed to live alone, by themselves, without any intrusion or direct contact with human beings. Others feel there may be some mutual advantages that come from peaceful interspecies contact and communication. Would you like to comment?

Goodall: I personally feel that the relationship between humans and animals out in the wild is not a bad thing, if it is just a question of us being out there and learning from and about them.

The sad thing is that even if we want to leave animals alone in nature, even if that is best for them and maybe for us, it's going to become impossible. The refuges where they can go are becoming smaller and smaller.

What concerns me is the disappearing forests. And it is no good our going to a very poor developing country and saying "You have to stop downing the forests. You have to save your animals." They get money or sustenance from the forests as their forebears always have. We have to give them an alternative. That could mean developing selective tourism, for example. Compensate them for the money they get from logging, compensate them for taking away land they could live on.

What is the effect of human contact on the chimpanzee environment in the wild? What are the limits of bringing people there?

Goodall: It is destroying Gombe, no question. Gombe is a very small national park. The tourism developed without any planning, and it has now reached the stage where there are far, far too many people coming into the study area. The chimps are too "tame." People can get too close. The danger is that chimps are four times stronger than people and they are becoming increasingly tense and more likely to become aggressive. People can get chimp diseases and chimps can also get human diseases.

When I first went to Gombe, I had fecal samples analyzed for parasites. The chimpanzees had some parasites, of course, but in no instance, it seemed, was the parasite lode increasing. But as the chimps become stressed, so the parasite level seems to increase. Their bodies are less able to fight. This means they are more liable to the risks of disease.

Now Tanzania National Parks is helping design a new kind of tourism in Gombe. Fees have been raised to discourage all but the most determined. We need a situation more like that set up for the mountain gorillas, where only a few people at a time can go and where they are told very precisely how to behave when close to the animals. The trouble is that tourism can be worse for the chimps than for the gorillas. Gorillas are always together in a group and have their silverback to protect them. Most of the females and the young can relax even if there are tourists around. In chimp society, the females spend a lot of time by themselves with the young, away from the males. It is not fair if one female is surrounded by twelve tourists, who are often standing up to get a better view over the vegetation. Instead they should sit and keep very quiet, as unobtrusive as possible, and not get too close, so that germs they may be carrying won't be picked up by the chimps, and so they run no risk of catching some disease from the chimps. And there never should be more than six people.

Do you have particular regulatory mechanisms in mind?

Goodall: We have a whole set of guidelines for suggested behavior, the kind of clothes to wear, and other information. We are also trying to habituate the chimps so they will not be so--I don't want to use the word tame--so tolerant of close approach. It would be better for the chimps and better for the tourists. We have had tourists come back the color of this paper because a young chimp had been threatening them. Chimps are dangerous. They can hurt if they are pushed too far.

I feel lucky, though, being in Tanzania. I only have to worry about disturbing the chimps. There is absolutely no danger to the Gombe chimps from poachers.

In your many lectures and public appearances, what have you found the most effective means for interesting people in conservation and in helping chimpanzees?

Goodall: In my slide talks, I introduce them to a creature that is not human and yet shares many of our intellectual abilities and emotions. I introduce them to individual chimps whose life histories and personalities are every bit as vivid as our own. Sometimes people are amazed. They say, "I never would have believed I could be moved to tears by the story of one chimpanzee living miles away in Tanzania." That opens their eyes to a new perspective on the whole animal kingdom.

I will close with a story. I tell it often, because of its symbolism. It is about a chimpanzee called Old Man, who lives on a man-made island at a zoo in Florida. He was rescued from a lab when he was about twelve and put on this island with three females, who had also been abused by humans. A young man, Marc Cusano, was employed by the zoo. One of his jobs was to look after these chimps, and he was told, "Don't go near them. They're vicious. They hate people. They'll kill you." So for a while Marc paddled his boat toward the shore of the island and threw the food up onto the banks.

But as he watched them he became more and more fascinated. He saw how, when he approached with the food, they became so excited that they would kiss and hug one another and make sounds of anticipation. He saw how gentle and loving Old Man was with a little infant born to one of the females--it was, of course, his son. Marc thought, "How can I look after these wonderful animals if I don't have some kind of good relationship with them? " So he began going closer and closer. One day he held out some food and Old Man took it from his hand.

As time went on Marc gained confidence and stepped onto the shore of the island. One day he actually groomed Old Man and eventually was able to play with him. The females were more standoffish, but they made no fuss when Marc walked onto the island.

Then about a year after his first contact with Old Man, Marc slipped, fell on his face, and startled the infant. The infant screamed, and the infant's mother raced to defend her child, as chimpanzee mothers will. She leapt onto Marc and bit deeply into his neck. The other two females also jumped on him, in support of their friend. One bit his wrist, one bit his leg. He thought he'd had it. He'd been attacked before, but never with this ferocity.

Then what happened? Old Man came charging out. He rushed out to the defense of this, his first human friend in years. He physically pulled each of those females off Marc. While Marc painfully dragged himself to the boat for safety, Old Man kept the screaming, highly aroused females at bay. When I saw Marc later, after he came out of the hospital, he said: "You know, Jane, there's absolutely no question but that Old Man saved my life."

This is where I think this story is so symbolic for us. If a chimpanzee, and a chimpanzee who has been abused by people, can reach out across the species barrier to help a human friend in time of need, then surely we humans with our deeper capacity for understanding and compassion can reach out to help chimpanzees and other creatures with whom we share the planet in their desperate time of need. Can't we?


In 1960, paleontologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey sent Jane Goodall to Gombe, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in what is now Tanzania, to undertake a long-term field study of chimpanzees. For the young Englishwoman raised on The Jungle Book and The Story of Doctor Doolittle, it meant the fulfillment of a childhood dream: to study animals in Africa, and to write about them.

Nearly forty years later, the study that Leakey had estimated might take ten years continues under Jane Goodall's direction. She received her Ph.D. in ethology from Cambridge University in 1965, the same year she founded the Gombe Stream Research Centre.

Behind Louis Leakey's interest in chimpanzees was the hope of finding clues to the behavior of early man, and the Gombe studies are often cited by paleoanthropologists. Jane Goodall, however is equally interested in the animals for their own sakes, as creatures who are "next to Homo sapiens, the most fascinating and complex in the world today. "

One of the current studies at Gombe, begun in 1960, is on family relationships over time and behavioral characteristics within a family group. Others focus on mother-infant behavior communication, and interactions between chimpanzees and baboons. Jane Goodall's study of chimpanzees has been recognized as the longest unbroken field study ever conducted of any group of animals in their native habitat.

A wide public knows of Jane Goodall's work through the National Geographic Society's television specials. She is the author of five books on chimpanzees and is now working on a sequel to In the Shadow of Man, the best seller that acquainted many people with chimpanzees on a first-name basis. (An obituary for Flo, one of the Gombe chimps, appeared in the London Sunday Times.)

The Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation in Maryland supports work at the Gombe Research Centre and throughout the world. Institute projects include:

  • Roots & Shoots, an environmental and humanitarian education program for young people.

  • TACARE, a reforestation project in Western Tanzania, focused on improving the residents' standard of living while promoting reforestation, curbing soil erosion, and expanding conservation education of the local population.

  • ChimpanZoo, an international research program dedicated to the study of chimpanzees in zoos and other captive settings.

  • Chimpanzee sanctuaries, where chimpanzees orphaned by poachers are provided with long-term care and rehabilitation. JGI sanctuaries are located in Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, and Kenya.

  • Gombe Stream Research Centre, where, nearly forty years after first arriving on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, Goodall and her staff of researchers continue to contribute significant findings on chimpanzee behavior and social relations.

For more information, write to the Jane Goodall Institute, P.O. Box 14890, Silver Spring, Maryland, 20911. You can also read a more complete biography of Jane on The Orion Society's website. Jane was the 1998 recipient of The Orion Society's John Hay Award.

This conversation was originally published in the Spring 1990 issue of Orion. To order a copy of this issue, please visit The Orion Society Marketplace, call (413) 528-4422, write The Orion Society, 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or e-mail us at

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