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For Jane of the Jungle: Jane Goodall

Last week I saw Dr. Jane Goodall give a talk called “Making a Difference.” Those three words perfectly describe her life and work.  Dr. Jane, as she is affectionately called, is a real life match for the fictional character of Tarzan. She has lived in a jungle, made friends with wild animals, learned how to interrupt chimpanzee behavior, and then taught the world how to preserve it for future generations. You know all in a lifetime. Average, right?

The event took place at the university I attended as an undergraduate. It is a spiritual place for me. While I waited for the talk to begin, I sat there looking around with my mind wondering. It was so surreal sitting at my old school, where I spent some of the most important and informative years of my life, but at the same time in a brand new building that I am sure my student loans are still help paying for. It had all the comforts of being at home and at the same time the thrill of a new beginning. I loved that it was also a place where I could now continue to go to open my horizons. It was a perfect harmony.

As Dr. Jane approached the stage she received a standing ovation. I got chills and fought back tears as I felt the gym shake with two thousand people clapping and cheering for her. I couldn’t believe she was right in front of me. Literally right in front of me. I had great seats, seventh row center. It was like a dream. I have seen her documentary and read her book, and now there she was. It was awe-inspiring. Although I have been lucky to meet many people who have led incredible lives I never tire of it. I suppose that’s the sociologist in me. I love learning how someone goes from one to a hundred. How have they made something out of nothing? How did they wake up one morning decide to change the world and then make that happen? There is a type of energy that surrounds these types of people and I love being around it. In fact, I crave it.

Jane spoke for over an hour, but the time seemed to fly by. That is the talent of a gifted speaker. She told her story from beginning to end. She had grown up poor in London where the only animals she had contact with were the average cat, dog, or pigeon. Yet she dreamed of a life in Africa. She was lucky enough to have a mother that encouraged her and supported her dream despite her financial and gender disadvantages. To get her daughter to read, Mrs. Goodall brought her beloved Jane, Dr. Doolittle books and eventually Tarzan. I love that Jane told the crowd the story that she was depressed to learn that he picked that other whippy Jane to run off with. I too agree he made a poor choice. His loss Jane; his loss.

Even though she couldn’t attend university at first, Jane continued to take her mother’s advice and read anything she could on the subjects she loved. This would turn out to be a move that would change her life. After a chance meeting with Dr. Louis Leakey, Jane would take an assignment that would bring her to Africa for six months to study the wild chimps. At that time if no important work had been completed the grant would run out. I cannot imagine what it took to make that move, leaving your native country behind in 1960. As Jane reminds us at the lecture camping was not what it is today. Even today the thought of the heat and the bugs is enough to keep me indoors, let alone traveling to a foreign land where your destination is to remain in a forest. But that was Jane’s dream. In fact she would be traveling with a companion, her mother because at that time it was deemed unsafe for a woman to go solo. Like I said she had a remarkable mother.

The rest as they say is history. Dr. Jane discovered that the chimps were making tools and had a lot in common with humans. Her grants were extended time and time again and she eventually was sent to university to pursue her degree. Jane would have likely remained in that jungle in Gombe, Africa were it not for a conference in Chicago in 1986 that changed everything. During this meeting to celebrate her findings in the wild, this meeting of the minds and top biologists began to open Jane’s world to what was really happening to chimps both in medical labs and in the hunting fields. It was at that point Jane knew in order to preserve her true love; she would have to give it up and become an activist. Ever since she has traveled approximately 300 days a year, spreading her messages of hope, humanity, and preservation. The Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots and Shoots program that has spun out of it is in many countries all over the world. Jane knew that youth would need to carry on the mission and many schools now support this program.

Next was my favorite part. I leapt from my seat to get on the line I knew would be enormous to meet Jane. I got a pretty good spot all things considered. I heard an employee tell someone not to worry about the length of the line; Jane’s personal best was signing one thousand autographs a minute! My God that was unfathomable to me. But I was also relieved because I knew on this particular night I would get to be one of them.

As I waited patiently I thought about the countless other nights I have spent like this. Waiting to meet someone I admire and what I want to say to them. I was holding my camera and book in my hand until it was numb but still trying to remain sharp and in the moment. Finally I am making progress and she is almost in my line of vision. I begin taking photographs and the excitement starts to mount. All other thoughts, stresses, daily obligations, slide away. I am solely focused on this moment. I don’t want to waste it. I want to appreciate it. I want to remember it.

When it is my turn, I approach. There is no flash photography allowed up close, or time for a posed photo, but I say hello and what an honor it is to meet Dr. Jane. She signs my book and I snap a few more shots. One of my final moments of this evening was no doubt one of the highlights. During these last few precious moments, I also got to touch Mr. H- the infamous monkey she has carried with her all over the world. He was given to her as a gift from someone that was a blind magician but was so good at his craft the children never knew he was blind. No one believed he could become a performer because of his disability. When he gave this monkey to Dr. Jane he thought he was a chimp. As a tribute to him and his courage, proving dreams can come true, Mr. H (named for the man who gave him to Dr. Jane) has touched and been touched by millions. He is a sign of hope and strength. He is also always by Jane’s side.

So this was the perfect end to a perfect evening for me. I got to meet Dr. Jane and even though she doesn’t live in the jungle anymore, she always has a monkey by her side. Sometimes dreams really do come true.

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