The free-ranging woman

Jane Goodall – primatologist, anthropologist and United Nations peace messenger – is the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees. She spent 45 years studying the social and family interactions of the chimps of the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

Goodall had long been interested in animals and Africa when her mentor, the Kenyan archaeologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, arranged for her to work at Gombe Stream in 1960. Two years later, he encouraged her to study for a PhD in ethology (the science of animal behaviour) at Cambridge University. Her 1965 thesis was titled "Behaviour of the Free-Ranging Chimpanzee".

When she began her study of the chimpanzee community, Goodall’s lack of scientific training allowed her to observe and work in a way that strict scientific methods disapproved of. For example, instead of simply numbering the various individuals, which scientists believe helps to avoid loss of objectivity, she named them all – thus committing that unpardonable sin, anthropomorphism.

But this unorthodox method allowed Goodall to appreciate the unique personalities of these creatures, animals capable of rational thought and emotions such as joy and sadness. She was fascinated by behaviours such as kisses, pats on the back, hugs and tickling.

Her close bond with these chimpanzees made her the only human to have achieved so intimate a knowledge of their behaviour. These observations alerted humans to our closeness to the apes, something beyond mere genetic affinity: the species resemble each other in intelligence, emotions, family and social relationships, as well as in their capacity as tool-making creatures – something formerly believed to be confined only to humans.

So the chimps David Greybeard, Mr McGregor and Flo and her children, Figan, Faben, Freud, Fifi and Flint, became almost household names. And the impenetrable barrier that was assumed to exist between humans and other species was finally recognised as porous.

Goodall’s careful, sympathetic observation – first of farm animals, later of chimpanzees and other wild animals – developed into an intense appreciation of their intelligence and ability to feel pleasure and pain. Her 2005 book, Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating, develops this unique knowledge in order to critique humans’ self-destructive eating habits.

Pointing out that chimpanzees, like humans, are omnivorous but largely vegetarian, only occasionally eating meat, she believes we should have far less meat in our diet. She illustrates the madness of current eating habits: some eating so much that obesity is killing them and creating new diseases, whereas others are dying of starvation.

We are trying to produce as much food as possible, as cheaply as possible, with maximum profit for multi­national shareholders – a dangerous, destructive route, robbing the natural world of nonrenewable resources.

Goodall’s respect for her chimpanzees led to her adopting vegetarianism, as being best for the welfare of animals, the environment and for human health. It is a lifestyle she has advocated in several campaigns, such as those against the use of animals in medical research, factory farming, and in sport. She says farm animals are "far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined and, despite having been bred as domestic slaves, they are individual beings in their own right. As such they deserve our respect … Who will plead for them if we are silent?"

Goodall explains that carnivores have short intestines, enabling them to pass indigestible food quickly through the body before it putrefies. Humans, by contrast, have long intestines like herbivores, so too much flesh-eating by humans can result in contaminants – especially from hormones and antibiotics fed to factory-farmed animals – remaining too long in the gut.

Over-consumption of meat has also created huge amounts of pollution. It is cruel, with factory farming of animals and fish in overcrowded conditions, using toxic chemicals in herbicides and fertilisers, degrading water sources, denuding ancient forests to create extra farmland, genetically modified seeds disabling the poor from competing in crop production, resistance to antibiotics through overuse on animals, and gigantic over-reliance on fossil fuels in farming and transportation.

"Mindful eating" kindles awareness that "each meal has a rich history as to how and where it grew or was raised, how it was harvested. Our world can no longer afford the heedless consumption that is now spreading its greedy tentacles around the globe."

Alleyn Diesel has a PhD in religious studies from the University of Natal.

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