What if I told you that there is one person who brings more star-struck expressions to the faces of our teen volunteers than any other? Who might you guess it would be? What if I told you that this person is not an actor or musician, and has never graced the cover of “US Weekly”? That in fact, this person is 76 years old and has been known to carry a stuffed animal everywhere? Doesn’t sound like a teen idol to you? Well, expectations are often defied when you’re Dr. Jane Goodall.
As Dr. Jane’s groundbreaking study of the chimpanzees at Gombe celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it’s a good time to reflect on the legacy her work has created. Her contributions to science cannot be understated- what began as a study to learn about chimps as a means of learning about ourselves, has evolved into one of the longest and most complex animal studies ever undertaken. From Dr. Jane we have learned some of the most basic things we now know about chimpanzees- that they hunt for monkeys, live in complex family groups, and of course, make and use tools. To this day, scientific data is recorded at Gombe that continues to deepen our understanding of chimps and their relation to us.
But I might argue that Dr. Jane’s greatest legacy is reflected on the faces of those teens I know personally who look up to her like no other. Dr. Jane is a legend to them. They see her as an icon, but also not so very different from them. Dr. Jane herself was 26 years old with a secretarial degree when she traveled to Tanzania to begin her study and was able to change our most basic assumptions about chimps and the animal world. As today’s teens stand ready to take on the world, what might they accomplish?
Dr. Jane has always recognized the power of youth to change the world, which led her to found Roots & Shoots, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Founded on the core values of knowledge, compassion and action, members of Roots & Shoots design their own projects to assist animals, the environment and the human community. The creativity of youth results in a stunning variety of projects all over the world. Here at the zoo, our Teen Wild Guides can claim to be one of the largest independent Roots & Shoots groups in the United States, with projects like the Asian Animal Festival, animal enrichment, and countless hours of visitor education under their belts. At a recent Wildlife Conservation Network Expo, they were recognized by their idol, when Dr. Jane Goodall herself asked them to stand and be applauded by an audience that had gathered to hear her speak.
And so, as we look back in this momentous year for Goodall, Gombe and the chimps, I raise my glass to Dr. Jane, along with all the future Dr. Janes that she inspires each and every day.