Interview by Ira Flatow
This conversation originally aired in 2002 on Ira’s long running radio show, Science Friday.
The Animated Transcript
Ira Flatow is the host of Science Friday® on Public Radio International. The show offers a lively, informative discussion on science, technology, health, space and the environment.
Now I know you do wonderful chimp calls.
Well I’m going to do the greeting. It’s the kind of sound you’d hear if you went to Gombe and you climbed up onto the ridge in the morning and if you’re lucky you hear the chimpanzee who’s calling out saying, “Here I am. It’s a wonderful day. Where are you?”. Woohwoohwoohwhoooahahahah.
Wow. That’s great.
Each one has his or her own individual voice so you know exactly who’s calling.
Caller: I wanted to know if you believed that there were any undiscovered, large ape species.
You’re talking about a yeti or bigfoot or Sasquatch.
Is that what’s he’s talking about?
Yes, yes he is.
I’m out of the loop. Go ahead.
Now you’ll be amazed when I tell you that I’m sure that they exist. I’ve talked to so many Native Americans who have all described the same sounds, two who have seen them. There was a little tiny snippet in the newspaper just last week which says that British scientists have found what they believe to be a yeti hair and that the scientist in the Natural History Museum in London couldn’t identify it as any known animal.
Did you always have this belief that they existed?
Well I’m a romantic so I always wanted them to exist.
Animals were my passion from even before I could speak apparently. Then when I was about 10, 11 I found the books about Tarzan of the Apes. Fell in love with Tarzan. He’s got that wife Jane, so I was terribly jealous of her. That was when my dream started. When I grew up, I would go to Africa, live with animals and write books about them. That’s how it all began.
I got the opportunity when a school friend invited me to go and stay on their farm in Kenya. I was 23 and I sort of said bye-bye to family, friends and country and off I went. That’s when I heard about the late Louis Leakey and somebody said, “Jane if you’re interested in animals, you must meet Louis.” Louis realized that I was the sort of person he said he had been looking for for about ten years who didn’t care about hairdressing and clothes and parties and boyfriends. I really wanted to be in the wild.
It took him a year. He searched for money and eventually found a wealthy American businessman that said, “Okay Louis here you are. Here’s enough money for six months. We’ll see how she does.” The chimpanzees ran away as soon as they saw me. They had not seen a white ape before and I knew if that six months money ran out before I had seen something really exciting everyone would have … I would have let Louis down.
Of course at that time we were defined as man the toolmaker. That was supposed to differentiate us more than anything else in the rest of the animal kingdom.
You discovered that chimps could make tools.
David Greybeard, bless his heart, I saw him crouched over a termite mound. The whole thing putting in the grass, picking the termites up, picking up a leafy twig and stripping off the leaves which is the beginning of tool making. I couldn’t actually believe it. I had to see it about four times before I let Louis Leakey know and then I sent a telegram and he sent back his famous, “Ha ha now we must redefine man, redefine tool or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
After a bit Louis said, “Jane you have to get a degree because otherwise you can’t get your own money and I won’t always be around to get money for you.” But he said, “we don’t have time to mess about with a BA so you’ll have to go straight for a PhD.” He managed to persuade Cambridge in England to accept me as a PhD student. When I got there, it was actually a very unpleasant and hostile reception that I had. I shouldn’t have named the chimps. It wasn’t scientific. I didn’t know. I knew nothing. And worse sin of all was that I was ascribing to them emotions like happiness, sadness and so forth.
They were just aghast at you?
Yeah they were.
I was even accused of teaching the chimps how to fish for termites which I mean that would have been such a brilliant coup. [laughter]
Caller: Do you think a primatologists gender influences how they conduct their work?
Well I think in many cases it actually does. Louis Leakey always thought women were better as observers. He felt that they were more patient. Certainly it’s very often true that women tend to be a bit quieter and more prepared to sit there and let the animal tell you things.
Would you rather be remembered for discovering the tool making abilities of the chimps or for your work in the environment today?
I think I’d like to be remembered as someone who really helped people to have a little humility and realize that we are part of the animal kingdom not separated from it. When I do go back to Gombe it’s to be in that timeless world where it’s soft and where life is entwined and you actually see the pattern of nature. I always feel this great spiritual power which I believe is around.
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5 Facts About Jane
- Jane’s very first chimpanzee came to her when she was only a year old, in the form of a stuffed toy given to her by her father. She named it Jubilee and it still sits on her dresser.
- Unable to afford college tuition, Jane worked as a secretary, a waitress, and a filmmaker’s assistant before going to Africa at age 23.
- National Geographic sponsored some of Jane’s work in Tanzania. They sent photographer Hugo van Lawick to document her work, and they ended up marrying in 1964.
- Jane’s practice of naming the chimpanzees instead of assigning them numbers was controversial among her fellow academics. The first chimpanzee she made contact with was named David Greybeard. Others included Gigi, Flo, Goliath, and Frodo. Jane and her chimpanzees became so famous that when Flo passed away, the London Times ran an obituary.
- In addition to the revelation that chimpanzees made and used tools, Jane also discovered that they were capable of violence and warfare against neighboring chimpanzee families, that they could express distinct emotional states and displays of altruism, and that they were not vegetarians as had previously been thought.
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