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Jane Goodall and her Wild Chimpanzees

Jane Goodall is best-known for her 45-year study of chimpanzee social and family interactions in Tanzania, and her influence on modern science is inarguable. Goodall’s astounding accomplishments include breakthroughs on the sociology, cognition, and culture of wild chimpanzees (such as their use of tools), and a more controversial act—naming her subjects…”Flo,” for example.

She, alongside other women scientists Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, represented part of a sisterhood to defend humanity’s closest cousins—the great apes. Their story is one of science, wisdom, and the steps made by incredible women in regard to the animal world.

The following is an excerpt from Walking with the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Sy Montgomery. It has been adapted for the Web.


Jane Goodall and Flo

Flo lay on her back dangling her baby, Flint, above her in the sun. With one black-soled, thumbed foot she gently held her ten-week-old son’s wrist; with her hand she reached up to tickle him in the groin and neck. The pink-faced baby waved his free arm and kicked his legs with the same unfocused, reflexive delight as a human infant. He opened his mouth in a toothless smile.

Flo was then very old for a wild chimpanzee, probably thirty-five. Even in the early morning sunshine, her coat looked faded, a dull brown; her ears were scarred and torn, her teeth worn to the gums. But as she gazed at her son, her brown eyes sparkled bright with playfulness.

Flo’s five-year-old daughter, Fifi, stared at the infant, sometimes reaching out to touch him gently with the tips of her fingers. She craned her neck to observe her brother more closely. Nearby, Faben and Figan, Flo’s older sons, chased and wrestled with each other. They pant-chuckled, chimpanzee laughter. To Flo and her family, Jane Goodall owes some of the richest portraits ever gathered of chimpanzee infant care and development and family relations.

Jane was then thirty years old and a new bride. Her husband, Hugo van Lawick, crouched beside her as she watched the chimps. Westerners usually crouch precariously on the balls of the feet; but Jane and Hugo crouched African style, soles flat on the ground. Jane, who as a young girl had practiced a full English curtsy, had perfected the African crouch after she began studying the chimps at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve in 1960; not only is the stance stable, it also allows you to rise instantly. Hugo, a Dutch baron born in Indonesia, had learned the crouch while working as a photographer and filmmaker in East Africa. It was this job that had brought him to Jane’s camp to document her work for National Geographic in 1962. They had found that their lives blended easily: their love of animals and the outdoors, their commitment to their work. Hugo had proposed to Jane by cable—will you marry me stop love stop hugo—and she had accepted instantly.

They were married on March 28, 1964, in London. Their wedding cake was topped not with a plastic bride and groom but with a clay chimpanzee. The walls of the reception hall were decorated with large color photographs that Hugo had taken of the chimpanzees: Flo and Fifi and Faben and Figan; the gentle adult male, David Graybeard, one of Jane’s favorites; the powerful alpha male, Goliath.

Three weeks before the wedding Jane had received word from her camp cook, Dominic, that Flo had given birth. So the couple cut their honeymoon short—only three days—and rushed back to Gombe to see Flo’s new baby.

By the time they arrived, Flint was seven weeks old. Jane will never forget the first time she saw him. “I can even recapture six years later the thrill of that first moment when Flo came close to us with Flint clinging beneath her,” Jane wrote in her 1971 book, In the Shadow of Man. “As his mother sat, Flint looked around toward us. His small, pale wrinkled face was perfect, with brilliant dark eyes, round shell-pink ears, and slightly lopsided mouth, all framed by a cap of sleek black hair. He stretched out an arm and flexed the minute pink fingers, then grabbed Flo’s hair again and turned to nuzzle and rootle with his mouth until he located a nipple.” Flo cradled him beneath her, adjusting his position so he could nurse more easily. He suckled and then closed his eyes. Finally Flo got up, gently supporting her sleeping son with one hand under his back as he clung to her belly, and walked away carefully on three limbs.

Jane had first met Flo when Fifi, only two, was still riding jockey-style on Flo’s back. Jane had watched Flo shelter her young daughter from the rain: Flo would hold Fifi close, folded in her great, hairy arms and feet; when the clouds cleared, Fifi would emerge from her mother’s embrace perfectly dry.

Often Flo would share fruit with her young daughter; she would allow Fifi to take food from her lips or would hold out fruit to her with her callused black hand. Jane had seen them fishing for termites together: Fifi would watch intently as Flo inserted a grass probe into the mound, waiting for the termites to cling to it, to be withdrawn and eaten. Flo would then wait while Fifi inserted her own stem, imitating her mother, to fish for the juicy insects. Jane knew that Fifi slept with her mother in the leafy night nest Flo built each evening in the tall trees, comfortable, warm, nestled in her mother’s arms.

And now, with her gold wedding band still gleaming new, Jane watched Flo, a mother half a decade Jane’s senior, with her perfect new infant. Jane might well have imagined pink human fingernails, tiny and perfect, and blue eyes, and the joy of coaxing from her own child, one day, a smile.


Flo was among the first chimps Jane named at Gombe. In the early days the males were the boldest. David Graybeard would wait for Jane to catch up as she followed him through the forest, tripping over vines, ripping her clothing from the catch of thorns. But Flo, of all the female chimpanzees, tolerated Jane’s presence best. With her deformed, bulbous nose, tattered ears, and lower lip that often drooped open, Flo seemed an ugly old matriarch; but when Jane looked into Flo’s eyes she saw deep wisdom and calm.

Flo was confident and relaxed even in the company of the most dominant adult males, who would sometimes groom her. One female, the wobbly-lipped, long-faced Olly, was so fearful of adult males that she would nearly choke on hysterical pant-grunts if a dominant male approached her. Some female chimpanzees will flee from their own adult sons. Occasionally an adult male chimpanzee will become so caught up in a charging display, intent on showcasing his male vigor and power, that he will attack or drag anything in his path—even tiny infants, whom the males normally treat with tolerance and affection. Much later, when Flo’s son Figan was about twenty years old, Jane would see him perform such charging displays: hair erect, hurling himself down a slope, running frenziedly as if propelled by some inner demon. One time Flo sat directly in his path. All the other chimps in the area scattered, but Flo stayed put. She simply ducked as her huge son leaped directly over her head.

Not all mothers would have been as calm and tolerant as this. Flo and her family sometimes traveled with timid Olly and Olly’s young daughter Gilka. When Gilka begged for food, her mother usually ignored her requests; another mother, Passion, would just get up and walk away from her two-year-old, without waiting for her daughter to hop onto her back.

So Jane was astonished when calm, tolerant Flo attacked Olly’s son, Evered. He had been playing with Flo’s son Figan, and the two had begun to squabble. When Figan screeched, Flo rushed to her son’s side, hair erect. Jane was stunned at the viciousness of the attack: furiously Flo slapped at Evered, rolling him over and over until, screaming hysterically, he escaped. For many years Jane did not understand this behavior. But Flo understood many things that Jane did not.

Flo, in her advanced age, embodied a sense of history: she had known decades of suffering, birth and death, triumph and grief that Jane could not yet imagine. The old chimp was battle scarred; her tattered ears hinted at past accidents and disease, fights won and lost. “Flo,” Jane said admiringly, “was a survivor, tough as nails.” She remembers wondering, what does Flo remember from her youth?

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