On Jane Goodall’s Puerto Rico Visit

So my family is astir with the news that Jane Goodall is going to give a talk in the University of Puerto Rico tomorrow. Jane Goodall, who inspired generations of conservationists and primate researchers, is my partner’s living saint the same way that Mother Teresa was for others. I knew Jane Goodall’s work by way of Carla, although I did suspect that Jane was the same woman that Tarzan built a nest of twigs for  (she could perhaps be the inspiration of the Tarzan film). Later on, I got to know her better when I taught biological anthropology and read her books closely on the Gombe chimpanzees.

Like the early pioneers of anthropology, Jane Goodall does not have a degree in anthropology or biology. What she had was the adventurous spirit and child-like curiosity to understand chimpanzees in the wild and not from the touristic sideshows in the zoos of Great Britain.  Her dreams jived well with Louis Leakey’s academic erudition who was seeking a behavioral model that could help the academic world better understand our past. And thus a fruitful collaboration was set that radicalized the understanding of our human origins and our relationship to the rest of the primate order (later on Louis Leakey sent Dian Fossey to study gorillas and Birute Galdikas for the orangutans).

A short summary of her contributions to science can be found in the Jane Goodall Institute website. One of the first discoveries is that chimps “make and use tools” and pass this skill on to the next generation, a nugget that destroyed the age-old anthropocentrism that humans are the only tool-making animal. Yet, her body of work cannot be reduced to bits of scientific insights which may appear stale to the information-savvy audience.  Taking from the words of the Jane Goodall Institute:

Jane’s work has taught hundreds of thousands of people about chimpanzees. It is as if she opened a window onto the chimpanzee world. People all over the world know and love the chimpanzees of Gombe. When one of the chimpanzees, old Flo, died in 1972, the London Times even printed an obituary.

Women primatologists owe a debt to Dr. Goodall. “Jane Goodall’s trail-blazing path for other women primatologists is arguably her greatest legacy… Indeed, women now dominate long-term primate behavioural studies worldwide”, writes Gilbert Grosvenor, chairman of the National Geographic Society. (http://www.janegoodall.ca/goodall-contribution-science.php)

The arrival of Jane Goodall to Puerto Rico appears puzzling at first glance given that the island has no endemic nonhuman primate population. Puerto Rico does have two primate species, patas monkeys and rhesus macaques, originally brought in the 1940s for scientific research. The rhesus macaques are found in Cayo Santiago and are studied by the researchers of the Caribbean Primate Research Center, while the patas monkeys have spread across the Lajas area where they are in constant contact with local residents.

Perhaps, Jane Goodall’s visit may spark a reevaluation of the importance of primate research and conservation in the island or, conversely, a reexamination of the praxis on the tenuous balance between primate research and ethics. I am hoping that the media glare on Jane Goodall would bring to the fore primate conservation and research issues that went previously undiscussed in the the public arena.

But more than anything else, being the saint that she is, Jane Goodall will be bringing a universal message. Her coming to Puerto Rico is not merely a blessing to my partner, who is currently writing a prayer-petition of sorts to her, but to the raising of conservation awareness and ecological consciousness on the island. After all, as Jane Goodall said: “Only when we understand can we care, only when we care will we help, only when we help shall they be saved.”


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