I had an awkward chat with Steve Irwin about Jane Goodall once.
(In hindsight, it was probably only awkward for me really, because I was not quite twenty and not fond of being wrong.)
I was living at home with my folks in Brisbane, studying Science during the week and working at Australia Zoo on weekends. Steve was flying in from overseas and I was waiting at home for the call to collect him from the airport and take him home to the zoo.
I was watching TV while I waited and legendary primatologist Jane Goodall was being interviewed on the Rosie O’Donnell show. She had an important conversation message, but the interview took what this lofty-thinking science student considered a ‘lowest common denominator’ angle and Rosie asked Jane to do some chimp calls. Jane obliged, but the interview left me feeling uncomfortable. Jane Goodall was like a deity to me, it seemed like a cheap trick to ask her to do animal impersonations.
As a young science student, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birutė Galdikas (fondly referred to as The Trimates) were of fascination and inspiration to me. These three women had been chosen by Louis Leakey to study primates in remote parts of the world. Leakey had specifically chosen women because he believed them better observers of animal behaviour. The idea that women could not only survive in such remote outposts, but do it better than blokes appealed me; a proud girl who’d spent her high school years at an all girls school fed on a staple diet of empowerment pep talks and “girls can do anything” stickers.
Stevo look tired when I picked him up. It’d been a long flight and he found the PR stuff tiring. He wasn’t fond of the limelight, he did it to communicate his conservation message.
Birutė Galdikas’ biography was on the dash of my gold 1985 Honda Civic and eventually the conversation came around to Jane’s interview with Rosie. With a few weary words Stevo quietly pointed out I was thinking about it wrong:
Amanda, I’d do a chimp call for an interview.
You do what you need to reach an audience with your message.
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to see Jane Goodall speak in the Crocoseum at Australia Zoo. Steve would have been so proud to have her there. After Ray Martin thanked the traditional owners of the land, he invited Jane if she’d like to give the traditional welcome from where she’s from and when she gave a long proud chimp call, I was reminded of my chat with Steve all those years ago.
My life has changed dramatically since that conversation, so it’s not surprising that the lessons I took away from Jane’s talk yesterday, were different than those I would have taken away fifteen years ago. I’m a mother now, not a hot-headed student. Jane spoke about earth’s finite resources, about buying less ‘stuff’. On that note, she would have been very proud of the vintage of the knickers I was wearing. She also gave me pause to ponder the excessive abundance of ‘things’ in our home.
She also spoke about discovering many behaviours, which up until her time in Gombe were considered uniquely human. She described empathy, grief, rage, happiness and altruism. She spoke about the social structure of the group and about how mothering played a big part in the eventual social standing of their offspring.
Chimpanzees are our nearest living relatives, and I suspect what makes a good chimp mum, also makes a good human mum.
Since forming the Jane Goodall Institute in 1986, Jane hasn’t spent longer than three weeks in any one spot – an amazing effort considering she turned eighty earlier this year. She works tirelessly in her conservations efforts around the world. Her Roots and Shoots program is designed for young people who are looking to make a difference, encouraging them to adopt an APE philosophy: acknowledging the interconnectedness of all living things and focussing on Animals, People and the Environment.
You can read more about the Jane Goodall Institute’s work in Australia here.
I’m not that different from the girl who spent a drive back to the Sunshine Coast with Steve in silence. Being wrong is still not my favourite thing, although I like to think I’m better at recognising it now. Somewhere along the way I realised that pride isn’t nearly as important as I thought it was back then: just one of the many things that Steve taught me in the time I was lucky enough to know him.