Dinner with Jane Goodall on visit to ‘chimp island’

"Just listen,” I said to myself as the warm African wind flickered the candles, “You’re sitting down to dinner with Jane Goodall — just listen.”

We were on Ngamba Island, nicknamed “chimp island,” for the isle is home to 48 orphaned chimpanzees. We could hear their pant-hoots as the sun rolled beneath the lake. Their calls seemed to harmonize with Goodall’s voice as she shared her wisdom, and together they began to lead me to a new understanding of our relationship with nonhuman animals.

As a student of Pacific Lutheran University, I was in Uganda with Professor Charles Bergman, carrying out a student-faculty research project. We were assisting Goodall in the release of 17 confiscated African grey parrots — beautiful in their plumage of grey and crimson — back into the protected forests of the island.

These once-wild birds were smuggled illegally out of Africa for the pet trade three years ago. They would make history: The release would mark the first time birds smuggled out of Africa were brought back and freed into the wild.

Goodall, best known for her work with chimpanzees, was involved to act on a personal belief: “Wild parrots don’t belong in cages, and they don’t do well in cages,” she said to us.

She became an international icon in 1965 when she returned from the Tanzanian jungles with indisputable proof that chimpanzees make and use tools, a skill previously thought to be uniquely human. Her research highlighted the advanced intelligence of nonhuman animals, and by doing so allowed humanity to rediscover our close relationship with other animals.

As the world’s ambassador for animals, Goodall is perhaps the best advocate for parrots. As she explained at dinner, it isn’t generally known that parrots are just as smart and capable as chimpanzees.

Around the table she shared the story of Alex, the famous African grey whose cognitive ability was on par with an average 5-year-old child. Then the story of N’kisi, a grey with a growing vocabulary of 1,600 English words. N’kisi doesn’t mimic; he can construct creative sentences. This parrot is actually speaking. In fact, when Goodall and N’kisi were introduced, he greeted her, “Hi Jane. Got a chimp?” He recognized her — and chimpanzees — from photographs.

It was then that Goodall offered her most salient point: We shouldn’t focus on comparisons — parrots to chimpanzees, parrots to humans — but instead appreciate all animals for their respective unique intelligence. In other words, imagine what parrots understand about their world as well as ours.

However, it is this intelligence that makes the African grey one of the world’s most popular pets — the previous fate of the 17 parrots we were there to release. We admire these birds for their intelligence and sociability, but these qualities sway us to purchase them as pets, confining them to lives in cages.

As pets, greys require a full-time commitment, and owners often find themselves over their heads. When this happens, the parrots are abandoned or sent to organized bird sanctuaries to live out their decades. In fact, Washington state has one of the highest number of sanctuaries in the country, with five facilities on the west side of the Cascades alone, taking in hundreds of abandoned pet parrots.

After spending time with these birds, I stand alongside Goodall in the belief that parrots (or any birds) should not be caged. Her stories and radiant wisdom led me to an understanding that these birds have a voice of their own, filled with a unique intelligence of their world — voices we could hear as Goodall opened the cage and set them free.

“Just listen,” I reminded myself, “Just listen.”

Nevis Granum is a student at Pacific Lutheran University studying English literature. He lives in Tacoma.