Out of Africa

A tale of chimps, disappearing habitats and Jane Goodall’s quest to save them

Seven years ago, Dale Peterson was on one of his many trips to Africa when he was offered a meal of python smothered in a rich sauce. It was tough and stringy, but he ate it. He hasn’t eaten meat since.

British primatologist Jane Goodall communicates with Pola, a young chimpanzee at the Budapest Zoo. © ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

It wasn’t the idea of eating something strange and exotic that turned him into a vegetarian. It was an unconscious decision that evolved after years of observing primates in the wild and writing about them. Since 1984, Peterson, a lecturer in the English department for 20 years, has written about primates (monkeys, apes, lemurs and other prosimians) living in tropical forests around the world, as well as the reasons why most primate species are endangered—including habitat destruction and the highly commercialized practice of killing exotic animals for meat. He has seen, up close, that primates have distinct personalities.

Now he has written about a human being, one so famous that she is known by schoolchildren and scientists alike. Peterson is the author of Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), the first biography of the naturalist written with her cooperation. It was named a “notable book” of 2006 by The New York Times and was on The Boston Globe’s list of the best books of 2006. The book has been reviewed in both the popular and the scientific press, earning attention not only from People and Vogue, but from American Scientist.

Boring worked
Goodall was only 26 years old in 1960, when she traveled to the shore of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania and settled in to study chimpanzees. No one had observed primates the way she did. Said Peterson, “One [observer] shot a gun and killed one of the gorillas he was trying to watch. Another went with a team of 50 porters to find chimpanzees and, not surprisingly, didn’t see much. Someone else made blinds and waited and watched but was hiding. Jane did something revolutionary. She said, ‘If I stand there and look like I’m boring, the chimpanzees will eventually get bored and tolerate my presence.’ It worked.”

Goodall made a startling observation. She watched a chimpanzee tear the leaves off a twig and use the stick to probe a termite mound. The chimpanzee then ate the termites clinging to the stick. The fact that chimpanzees made and used tools was a remarkable discovery, leading her mentor, renowned scientist Louis Leaky, to say, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Dale Peterson spent hundreds of hours over a decade interviewing Jane Goodall for the biography of his friend. © JODI HILTON

Goodall’s work captured the interest of people around the world. The notion of a young, blonde English woman living alone among primates was as intriguing as the serious science she undertook. She began living in Africa in 1960 and went on to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1965. Now she travels most of the year, lecturing about primates and their rapidly diminishing habitats.

The collaboration begins
Peterson met Goodall after his publisher asked her to write an introduction to his book The Deluge of the Ark (Houghton Mifflin), an account of his search to find the 12 rarest and most endangered primate species. His quest took him to Brazil, Africa, Madagascar, South India, Borneo and Sumatra. Goodall and Peterson then worked on a book together, Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People, published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin.

Peterson soon began thinking about writing a book about his friend. “My friendship with her continued. I noticed everyone wrote about her, but it was a shallow representation of a person I knew … I not only knew her, but I knew how she thought.” In 1995, Goodall spoke at MIT, and Peterson drove her to the airport. During the ride he mentioned that he didn’t think anyone had done a very good job of writing about her, and the two agreed he would write a biography.

He interviewed Goodall for hundreds of hours over the next 10 years. “I interviewed her again and again and again and again. I called her. Whenever I saw her, I had a tape recorder. I also found answers in other ways, in her own writing.

Two of the chimps Jane Goodall began studying more than 40 years ago in Tanzania. © KENNETH LOVE/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC/GETTY IMAGES

Bearded, casually dressed in a sweater, brown corduroys and sturdy shoes, Peterson speaks in a low, sonorous voice. “Jane is one of the very few people who are very good with animals and also very good with people. A lot of people go into this field because they have difficulty with people. She’s social and likes to be around people. She has a surface that is charming and feminine, and physically, she seems delicate. But she is extremely tough and very, very, very stubborn and has a boundless determination that defines who she is.”

Goodall, now 73, today is known nearly as much for her conservation efforts as she is for her chimpanzee studies. Peterson, too, has witnessed the destruction of the primates’ habitats. “Logging in Africa is big business, and the loggers are all European and Asian. They are taking wood out of Africa, and the benefits go to the already-rich and powerful. One consequence is the opening up of the tropical forest in Central Africa, and that has led to market-hunting. Every single animal is hunted for meat, considered exotic, luxury fare [in many parts of the world]. Also, the chimps are susceptible to all the diseases that humans are, so there are epidemics. Chimpanzees get polio, for example. Chimps, gorillas and bononbos are all threatened, and Jane Goodall is very concerned about this. She has conservation clubs for children around the world in 60 or 70 countries.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.