Trinity University Press

Jane Goodall- Sarah Bexell

Thank You, Jane, for Being an Inspiration

Sarah Bexell

    I first learned about Dr. Jane Goodall from the beautiful National Geographic collection that my grandparents kept. I remember thinking of her as a movie star rather than a scientist when I was young! I admired her for being able to gain the trust of chimpanzees, my favorite image being the one of Jane and the juvenile chimp reaching out and touching their fingers together in growing trust.

    After I received my undergraduate degree in biology, I went to graduate school to obtain a master’s degree in physical anthropology focusing on primate behavior. This is when I learned about Dr. Goodall’s work intimately. While I chose to study neotropical species (tamarins and callimicos), I used Dr. Goodall as my compass: considering that as a woman I could be a scientist fighting to unveil the intimate lives of other beings. In graduate school, I heard that Dr. Goodall was giving a lecture in the nearby city of Rockford, Illinois. In a group with several classmates, I bought my ticket, and we piled into the couple of cars we had and drove the one and a half hours to see her lecture. My respect and awe of her increased exponentially. The part that struck me the most, and helped shape my future, was her obvious and unabashed love for the chimps she had come to know as individuals. It was the first time I had heard someone talk of wild animals that way, and I was changed forever. This was around 1993, and I was able to start letting go of the barriers that society had erected between humans and other animals.

    When it came time to take my first and treasured primate behavior course from Dr. Dan Gebo, another shift occurred. Two things from that course struck me. One was that primate social behavior, from lemurs to great apes, demonstrated their love and devotion for each other. Again, although this idea is shocking to me now, I had never thought of other animals in this way! This shift of mind and heart came along with the shocking information that most of the primates are endangered. I had never heard this word before (oh, I grew up in a wonderful time!), nor had I previously heard about “habitat destruction,” and I was appalled, angry, and desperately sad. I had no idea that humans could be so terrible as to take everything from other animals, ultimately driving them to extinction. At the same time, I learned that Dr. Goodall was leaving her field research, and her life in an African forest, to travel the world as an ambassador for chimps, thus shifting gears from scientist to educator. I was again struck by her
wisdom and fortitude to protect her beloved kin.

    While I still wanted to study animal behavior, I took her turn in careers seriously. I had worked for the golden lion tamarin conservation program at Zoo Atlanta for several years, while going back for a second master’s, this time in science education. I wanted to follow in Dr. Goodall’s footsteps and be an agent for change for wild animals and their right to survive. I followed that with a Ph.D. in early childhood education and have worked since for the conservation of wildlife through education, primarily for golden lion tamarins, black-footed ferrets, giant pandas, red pandas and turtles and tortoises. In my role of teaching at a university, I have tried to promote the larger concept of biodiversity. While I have only had the opportunity to meet Dr. Goodall once and see her speak twice, her career, her love and devotion, and my ability to understand her through her role as an internationally public figure, have guided my career decisions and kept me hopeful even in my darkest days. Thank you, dear Dr. Goodall, for being
an inspiration for humans of all ages and cultures and for demonstrating that all animals, including humans, deserve love and safety, respect and wellbeing.
Love to you . . .

    Sarah M. Bexell is Research Scholar at the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, USA and Director of Conservation Education at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, China.