BY CLINTON DICK
On Monday, world-renowned ethologist Dr. Jane Goodall came to the Law School to argue for legal rights for chimpanzees. Goodall was the keynote speaker at the Law School Symposium on The Evolving Legal Status of Chimpanzees. Goodall’s discoveries, some have argued, virtually laid the foundation for all future primate studies.
Knowing that other speakers would be addressing the legal questions posed by animal rights, Goodall focused on the emotional and behavioral aspects of chimpanzees. She shared with the audience how chimpanzees, like their human relatives, are capable of compassion and joy as well as aggression and sadness. She allowed a glimpse into their world with fascinating stories on human-chimpanzee interaction, and argued for alternatives to using animals in medical research. In short, her speech was an attempt to humanize the chimpanzee by expanding traditional definitions of culture, behavior and emotions in order to include other animals within their meanings.
After a warm introduction by HLS Student Animal Legal Defense Fund co-president Dominque Castro, Goodall immediately captured her audience’s attention with her own imitation of chimpanzee sounds. She brought the chimpanzee’s voice to the halls of Harvard Law in the same way she brought it to the United Nations, the European Union and to countless schools and colleges across the world over the many decades that her work has spanned. Human language, she argued, has led to human domination, which in turn has meant that the world has been subjected to our pollution, our warfare and our destruction of animal and plant species. But our focus on spoken language as a sign of cognitive ability, Goodall contended, means that we have ignored other vital signs of thinking process. “Chimpanzees are capable of sophisticated cooperation,” Goodall observed, “When they hunt, they share food. They are capable of using many different objects as tools.” This last insight into the use of tools was one of Goodall’s earliest breakthroughs in her field of research.
One of the most interesting parts of Goodall’s speech came when she told of her encounters with chimpanzees in the wild. When she first came upon one group of chimps they all ran away because, in her words, “they had never seen a white ape before.” But one chimp in particular she called David was the first to lose his fear of her. While following him through the wild one day, Goodall emerged through the brush to find him sitting on the ground next to some nuts. Cautiously, Goodall offered David a nut, but he dropped it and embraced her hand instead. “We communicated with a language that predated spoken language,” Goodall fondly remarked, “It was an old language between humans and chimps.”
“They also have a dark side to their nature,” Goodall admitted as she explained an aggressiveness that resembles that found in humans. She told of chimps patrolling their outer boundaries, where they would sometimes brutally attack strangers. On another occasion, a split among one group of chimps erupted into a civil war, with one side completely annihilating the other side’s males.
Lest such images of aggression dominate her address, Goodall relayed stories involving real sympathy on the part of the chimp. “There are very strong [signs] of love and compassion in chimps,” she said, describing the story of Mel, a chimp that lost his mother and was adopted by an older male not biologically related to him. Discounting an evolutionary reason for the adoption, Goodall speculated that since the older male had lost his ancient mother in the same epidemic that took Mel’s mother, he sought to fill the void left by her absence with the chimp. “I can sympathize because I lost my mother,” Goodall stated. “When you lose someone who was your best friend for sixty-five years, it can leave an empty space.”
Goodall also raised important considerations about the use of chimpanzees in medical research. She explained that there are alternatives to such research, but “until there is a law mandating the use of alternative techniques, people will still use animals because that is the way it is done.”
She ended with a story of Old Man, a chimp who lost his mother to hunters at an early age, and was sent to the United States to undergo medical experimentation. At the age of fifteen, Old Man was released to a small island with three other females, where he soon became a father. Goodall mentioned that another researcher named Mark, who was visiting the island, accidentally fell and scared the baby chimp. The three females, thinking he was a threat to the baby, attacked him and bit him on his neck and wrists. The researcher looked up to see Old Man charging toward him, and he thought he was going to die. But Old Man knocked away the female chimps and allowed Mark to escape.
“If a chimp who has been abused by people can reach across the divide that separates us from them,” Goodall stated, “then surely we as humans can do the same.” Goodall’s speech was funded by the Bob Barker Endowment for the Study of Animal Rights, which the Price Is Right game show host donated to HLS in July 2001. The Symposium was one of the largest events funded thus far by the $500,000 grant.