Dame Jane Goodall can tell a very good dirty joke and the erudite nature of her British accent only highlights the punchline.
Thanks to a friend who served as a board member of Jane Goodall Institute (https://www.janegoodall.org/), we were able to meet with her in Marin County after a lengthy back and forth correspondence which took place during fall and winter of 2003, we were able to coordinate with her calendar for a wonderful Luncheon Society gathering that took place in April of 2004.
Now let’s get to the dirty joke. When Dame Goodall entered the private dining room, she was wearing dark sunglasses not because of the California sunshine but because she visited her doctor for a procedure on both eyes. After experiencing some discomfort, doctors discovered that there were organisms wandering around on the surface of her eyeballs and thankfully with the right regimen of antibiotics, she was eventually able to beat back the illness.
Jane said that one doctor mentioned that the organisms looked like a couple of copulating bugs, so she replied, “So you think I have a fucking bug problem?”
A millisecond later, when people realized that Dame Jane Goodall, knighted by Elizabeth II, winner of the Kyoto Prize, the Hubbard Medal, and a whole host of other awards could effortlessly drop the “F Bomb” too, the room erupted in laughter.
In time she would fully recover.
The Trimates. Dame Goodall was part of what was called “The Trimates,” women whose efforts were championed by the great primatologist Dr Louis Leakey. All three would study the behaviors of wild primates, living as close as possible to their day to day habitats. Dr. Dian Fossey would study gorillas in Rwanda and become a strong voice for their protection until she was brutally murdered in 1985, a crime that remains unsolved, but many people feel that poachers were to blame. Fossey would be portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the film “Gorillas in the Mist,” which debuted only a few years after she was killed. German born primatologist Birute Galdikas would spend her time in the field studying the behaviors of Orangutans and led the groundbreaking research into their behavior. Jane Goodall would study the behaviors of chimpanzees in the Gombe and she arrived in 1960, a couple years before independence.
What made Goodall’s move to Africa amazing is that when she stepped into the field to research chimpanzee, she lacked the benefit of a college degree. Based on her meeting with Dr Leakey in England, she convinced him based on her passion for chimpanzees, even though she had two strikes against her—she lacked any academic credentials; and was also a female in a male-dominated position. However, she had the support of Louis Leakey, and that is what mattered.
What made Jane Goodall special. Unlike many of the other academics who lacked the time in the field, Goodall took the time to report, watch and learn. The elders of these chimpanzee extended families would often invite her into their lives and she had the patience not to rush building the relationships. Within time, Goodall had alphabetized these family groups but is was the “F” family that achieved the most notice and all of the offspring began with the same letter.
Flo and her family. When Goodall arrived in 1960, she paid close attention to Old Flo, the matriarch of the F Family with her daughter Fifi and son Figan. The F Family had a heightened status within the chimpanzees of the Gombe, which was only increased with Fifi’s offspring, Freud and Frodo, who would often battle each other for the Alpha Male position throughout the 1970’s and to the 1990’s.
Freud was seen as a laid back leader who built consensus while it was Frodo would lead through bullying tactics, something he delighted taking out on frightened humans who would visit the nature preserve. Whenever Frodo would try to oust Freud from his alpha position, his mother (Fifi) and uncle (Figan) would often side with Freud at the expense of Frodo. With that, the status quo was maintained.
However, Freud would fall victim to the mange and that gave Frodo the route to the alpha position that he had attempted to gain since he was a child.
Goodall was often criticized by some who felt that she was treating the chimpanzees with a sense of heightened anthropomorphism, where human impulses are attached to animal behaviors. Goodall felt that chimpanzees were social creatures who also lacked the pejorative characteristics often found with Man. However, that changed in the 1970s when she witnessed what became known as The Chimpanzee War, where a group of rebellious primates cornered and then consciously murdered one of their leaders, something Goodall found absolutely shocking. No other primate groups were known to engage in such behavior. While there was some initial pushback by the scientific community with her thesis of animal regicide, further study showed that Goodall was right all along.
The Future of the Gombe in peril. As development encroaches on the outer boundaries of the Gombe Nature Preserve, Jane Goodall worries that the place which had served as the home of chimpanzees for millennia might fall to development or poachers after she leaves the scene. At the time of our Luncheon Society gathering in 2004, Jane Goodall had lived in Tanzania for almost 45 years and had experienced the excitement of independence along with the horror of the internecine conflicts often found in sub-Saharan Africa. Time would tell if the chimpanzees would be saved for the long term, but Goodall had never been as worried as she was when she sat down with us on the sunny day in Marin County.
This is where some good stuff came out of the Luncheon Society gathering.
As Jane Goodall prepared to leave for another event, the rest of us remained around the table to keep the conversation going. Actor and activist Peter Coyote came up with a wonderful idea of funding and building a ventilated bathroom for the girls who attended a nearby high school. I never understood why a ventilated bathroom was so important those who attended the village school but Jane mentioned that non-ventilated bathrooms were the breeding grounds for all sorts of diseases that would bring illness, even death.
We all opened up our wallets and our checkbooks and made a donation. One of the people around the table belonged to a local foundation started by a tech giant and she pledged to triple whatever was collected around the table.
To make a long story short, months later after the ventilated bathroom was built, we all received pictures (long since lost, sadly) of our efforts of the happy young girls around the new addition, something we would never take as a luxury because it is so commonplace here in the states.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1996 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.