Primatologist Jane Goodall speaks at SNC

Scientist shares her story, advocates for conservation


Photo: Zoe Tuttle

The next generation: Dr. Jane Goodall shares her stuffed monkey Mr. H with a young fan.

The room is buzzing. The petite 85-year-old slips into the room, clothed in a simple black turtleneck, with a monarch butterfly print shawl wrapped around her shoulders. The crowd falls silent as Dr. Jane Goodall takes her seat in the front row. Sierra Nevada College’s president Alan Walker offers brief introductions, followed by another introduction by Bob Graves, headmaster of Incline Village’s Lake Tahoe School.

Dr. Goodall takes her spot behind the podium, and begins her lecture by talking about her childhood fascination with animals.

Goodall grew up poor, but rich with imagination. She devoured library and second-hand books about animals, feeding a passion that would eventually place her among the avant-garde of primatologists. Her famed career would put her on magazine covers around the globe, propelled by her drive to deepen science’s understanding of primate species. She credits her success to her supportive mother, who never got upset with Goodall, despite some of her unorthodox pursuits.

One example: the time she was fascinated by where chicken eggs came from, because Goodall couldn’t see a hole large enough for an egg to come out of a chicken. So the then-4-year-old hid herself in a chicken coop, waiting for a hen to come lay.

After alarming family and friends with her brief disappearance, her mother was delighted to hear of Goodall’s first sojourn into scientific study: finding out how hens lay eggs. During her lecture, held March 29 in the Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences building on SNC Tahoe’s campus, Goodall discussed the adversity she faced in her pursuit of science and discovery. She always wanted to go to Africa.

“Girls didn’t do that sort of adventurous thing,” Goodall said. People told her she couldn’t just up and go to Africa. But, when a school friend invited her, she eagerly jumped at the opportunity.

Growing up poor, Goodall couldn’t afford university, so she attended secretarial courses as a way to make money while living in London. To save for the trip to Africa, she moved back home and became a waitress at the local hotel restaurant. Goodall says she spent a month at sea, and was exposed to the hard truth of the world. While staying in Cape Town, she saw “whites only” benches in many of the parks, and became disheartened that all of Africa may be this segregated. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

While in Kenya, Goodall was introduced to famed paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who was amazed by Goodall’s persistence. Together, they worked out a deal to have Goodall work with him observing the chimpanzees of the Gombe National Park.

Goodall immersed herself in the fieldwork, naming the chimps and creating connections. She witnessed the animals using tools, which was a completely new scientific discovery at the time. Critics originally didn’t believe Goodall’s observations as she “didn’t have a degree and I was just a girl,” Goodall explains. A year later, Goodall was admitted to Cambridge University’s PhD program, so she could continue her research in Gombe. She was one of only a few people to be accepted to the program without an undergraduate degree. She studied ethology, the science of animal behavior, and received her degree in 1966.

Goodall is a witty speaker, cracking dry jokes throughout the lecture. Though much of her lecture was about the adversity she has faced over the years, she kept a good humor.

Although Goodall speaks highly of her past, she places a bigger emphasis on the future. At 85 years old, she finds herself traveling 300 days a year to share her story.

Part of her journey is to spread the word about Roots and Shoots, a youth service organization she founded in 1991. Its mission is to “Foster respect and compassion for all living things, to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs, and to inspire each individual to take action to make the world a better place for people, other animals, and the environment.”

While in North Lake Tahoe, Goodall held lectures at SNC Tahoe, Incline High School, and Lake Tahoe School. The impact of her lectures will continue to resonate with the students, as Incline High School and Lake Tahoe school are pairing up to create their own chapter of the Roots and Shoots organization.

Members of Roots and Shoots range in age from kindergarten to college. This global operation puts students in charge, empowering them to determine what issues they want to tackle in their communities. Students complete service for three aspects: one for people, one for animals, and one for the environment.

Bob Graves, headmaster of Lake Tahoe School, is excited for the opportunity to bring the organization to the North Lake Tahoe area.

“One of the toughest things educators face these days is the need to have their students focus on issues and solutions beyond themselves and their own personal needs, something Roots and Shoots thankfully provides,” Graves said.

“The students and parents are pretty pumped right now after meeting Jane. The key will be to keep those positive vibes going and to channel the energy and enthusiasm into Roots and Shoots as soon as possible – exactly why we will be starting the new chapter this spring.”