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Nearing 80, Jane Goodall is busier than ever

Primatologist travels year-round for animal rights

Chimpanzee specialist Jane Goodall carries a stuffed monkey wherever she travels.

2012 File/Associated Press

Chimpanzee specialist Jane Goodall carries a stuffed monkey wherever she travels.

JOHANNESBURG — Jane Goodall, who turns 80 this year, knows how to work a crowd.

In a packed auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand, the elegant primatologist from Britain whooped like the chimpanzees she first studied in Tanzania in the early 1960s. She hugged an academic just like, she said, chimps do.

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Goodall also talked about her crush, as a ‘‘romantic little 10-year-old,’’ on Tarzan, the fictional figure raised by apes.

‘‘What did he do? He married the wrong Jane,’’ Goodall lamented to laughter on Friday at the university, where officials congratulated her on her upcoming birthday, April 3. Goodall said she was perplexed by the hoopla.

Goodall, a protege of anthropologist Louis Leakey, documented the relationships and other behavioral patterns of chimpanzees, finding parallels with human conduct that spurred debate about evolution.

Now she is an environmental and animal rights activist, traveling 300 days a year to speak for those species that cannot speak for themselves.

The woman who said she got ‘‘depressed’’ in the early days of research, when chimpanzees vanished into the forest at her approach, is also part of popular culture.

The United Nations designated her a peace messenger. Goodall’s character has popped up in television parodies. A celebrated photograph shows a chimpanzee reaching out to her in a kind of ‘‘E.T.’’ moment, reminiscent of the finger touch between alien and child in the science-fiction movie.

‘‘There’s no really sharp line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom,’’ Goodall said in an hourlong speech that was part autobiography, part save the planet.

She acknowledged that chimpanzees don’t gather in auditoriums, send robots to Mars, or communicate with words.

Creatures can be sneaky, though. One of Goodall’s favorite stories is about an aquarium where fish were disappearing after closing time. A camera was set up to get to the bottom of the mystery. It turned out that an octopus was walking across the floor to other fish tanks for a meal, then innocently returning to its own tank by morning.

Goodall’s 22-page resume, posted on the website of the Virginia-based institute that carries her name, lists the many advisory boards she sits on, honorary degrees, and awards (well over 100, including Dame of the British Empire and French Legion of Honor).

She gives talks with a stuffed monkey propped on the podium. She has also traveled with a rock from the prison island where Nelson Mandela, the South African antiapartheid leader who died Dec. 5, toiled in a quarry for years.

She has planted trees in Singapore, voted on favorite artwork by chimpanzees (the winner used only his tongue), picked up $1 million from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen last year to study and protect gorillas in Africa, and ridden in a carriage as grand marshal at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

Next month, Goodall will view a migration of sandhill cranes in Nebraska.

A columnist in News24.com, an online news outlet in South Africa, was impressed, writing that the octogenarian ‘‘in a society terrified of aging, makes having reached this milestone seem, well, cool.’’

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