Primates captures the fascinating study of several great ape species in the 1960's and 70's. Three women—Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas—found their calling and approached their research in very different ways.
Jane Goodall revolutionized animal study with her focus on the chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park. She discovered the chimps using tools such as sticks to reach termites, a tasty snack. Before that discovery, the use of tools was thought to be only a human characteristic. Becaue of her work, our definitions have since changed.
Goodall was criticised by the scientific community for her research practices, which included giving the chimps a variety of names. Your average scientist at the time would classify his subjects by number so as to keep the project unbiased. Despite the controversy, something about Goodall's path struck a chord with people. As National Geographic magazine started to feature her research, Goodall found herself the focus of much attention. This has led to a greater awareness of chimpanzees and increased conservation efforts for them.
Dian Fossey was more of an extremist when it came to species conservation. Her focus on gorillas led to frequent disputes with poachers. Fossey was hardly diplomatic with her activism, but she was good at getting attention, both positive and negative for her efforts.
Fossey was intense, but this led to some funny exchanges. Alfred Hitchcock once approached her at a party and said that he was thinking of using gorillas in a suspense movie. Fossey happily informed him that it would be a ridiculous premise since all of the gorillas she had encountered were about as fearsome as sheep.
Biruté Galdikas is the scientist I learned the most about during my reading, simply because I had not heard much about her before. She studied orangutans in southeast Asia, animals about which scientists knew almost nothing previously. In fact, before Galdikas' research, many people thought that male and female orangutans were two entirely different species. Males are twice the size of females and were sometimes also mistaken for wild men. Indeed, their name means "Person of the Forest." Biruté's intrepid studies shed much light on their behavior.
All three of these women were mentored by Louis Leakey, an archaeologist and anthropologist who specialized in Africa's role in early human development. Leakey felt that women were more patient and determined than men, able to live meagerly in the wilderness for the sake of research. Despite their differences in approach and location, their similarities from their work with primates gave them a rare bond.
The ladies' stories orbit each other and converge at times, thanks to solid writing and artwork by Jim Ottavianni and Marin Wicks respectively. I especially appreciated how each character's journal entries had different lettering, allowing me to quickly recognize whose thoughts were on display.
Goodall, the most famous of the three, has been the subject of some fantastic children's books. The Watcher is a non-fiction account of her research, while Me...Jane is more of a picture book focused on her childhood fascination with animals. When I reviewed Me...Jane last year, I also pointed out that the fantastic website archive.org has three films of hers.