10/18/2005 10:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jane Goodall's "Fifi" Taught The World

Back in 1960, when primatologist Jane Goodall first arrived in Tanzania to study an extended community of chimps at the Gombe Stream Reserve we as humans knew a lot less about our closest living relatives than we do now.

At that time, even the most goodhearted and creature-friendly among us tended to look at chimps as clownish acrobats who looked cute and made faces while on television or peered back at us from behind their cages at the zoo.

Television chimps included such caricatures as Bonzo and J. Fred Muggs. And zoo chimps were those funny creatures who scratched themselves all over (and I do mean all over) jumped up and down and made faces at us. Circus chimps fared little better.

But over the next 45 years -- first as an onsite researcher, then an author, film documentarian and now as a tireless advocate for this fascinating, compelling species, Jane Goodall has taught us things we either did not know or care to know.

Facts like, chimps laugh, cry, love, form alliances, practice random acts of kindness, and occasional cruelty. They build and use tools, and have a type of culture that differs from group to group.

But perhaps closest to us, most chimp females are loving mothers.

Chimp Fifi was two years old when Goodall arrived at Gombe. Over more than four decades, Fifi gave birth to nine children, most of whom became solid citizens of the Gombe chimp community. Over the years, Fifi endured the loss of a child, and a fight for her own life against sarcoptic mange.

In her film, book and lecture work, Jane Goodall has devoted much footage and many words to the life and times of this good mother, Fifi. A member of a species whose habitat is disappearing, and who is still hunted for bush meat and to serve as pets. And who is still subject to great cruelty in laboratories, zoos and circuses.

But Fifi taught us that to be chimp is not so dissimilar than to be human. And you know, when I watch the evening news and read of some meth addict Mom that has ignored her children, I wonder if the hierarchy of species defined for us by society and by science is somewhat askew.

Then, last year, Fifi disappeared at the northern edge of the Gombe range. She was traveling with her six year old daughter, Flirt. Subsequent sightings were of Flirt, alone. It is rare for a six-year old chimp to be seen without her mother, so the assumption grew into a certainty - Fifi had breathed her last.

Given that Fifi's child was traveling without her, seemed to rule out poachers- who, damn them, most often kill the mother and take the child and either keep it as a pet, sell it to roadside circuses, or unscrupulous laboratories. Plus, at the fairly advanced age of 46, it is more likely that she either fell victim to disease or to wilder and nimbler creatures of the forest. Her passing was the last death of any of the chimps that were there when Goodall arrived at Gombe 44 years earlier.

It is about a year since Fifi's disappearance now, more than enough time for the hearbroken staff of the Jane Goodall Institute's Gombe Stream Research Centre to confirm, yes, Fifi is dead. Before you click to read her obit, please remember Fifi as a teacher sent to us to teach us that chimps are so much like us, their habitat, their dignity, and indeed their future must be safeguarded.