On (not) being Jane Goodall

A writer wonders what it would be like to study the coati, a Southwestern cousin of the raccoon.

  • A white-nosed coati.


I have always wanted to be Jane Goodall, who left her home in England –– not even going to college first –– and went to live in the forests of Tanzania, studying chimpanzees, watching and listening, her back against a tree, her toes rotting with fungus, desiring and finding and then opening "a window" into the mind of the Other. A glimpse into the mind of another species: The idea is profoundly thrilling. Sometimes in the middle of the street, in the middle of my life as a teacher and wife and mother, I stop to wonder: Why didn't I do that? My heart feels pierced. Where is my window into the Other? And why am I inside so much of the day?

I have always wanted to be Jane Goodall. But I want to study coatis, not chimps. In the United States, the white-nosed coati (Nasua narica) is mainly found in the southeastern and southwestern corners of Arizona and New Mexico, and in parts of Texas. Relatives of the raccoon, the size of a big housecat, coatis have long tails, long noses and faces masked in white and black. They live in matriarchal bands of up to 40 animals and speak a language of grunts, chitters and churrs. Coatis project tough love (the females kick out the bachelor males every spring) and a "tough nuts-to-you" attitude, with their muscular shoulders and thick pelts in shades of brown; I most often see them glaring down at me from the treetops.

If I lived with the coatis, I'd have to quit my teaching job in Silver City, N.M., travel from hackberry forest to cottonwood bosque, and burrow vertically into knowledge. Vertical would be a new direction for me since my understanding of the world is almost completely horizontal. I know a little bit about a lot. I don't go deep. If I lived with the coatis, I'd have to tunnel down into one thing – seasonal patterns, parasite loads, kinship bonds.

As it is, though, every year I see a few coatis and learn incrementally. Last summer, in the higher elevations of the Gila National Forest, a movement in a pine tree became the white nose and dark eyes of a coati about 30 feet away. Typically, a lone coati is most likely to be male, but in early June, pregnant females also leave the group to bear their young. Until late summer, a mother will leave her kits in a nest while she forages omnivorously – eating roots, fruits, grubs, tarantulas. After she rejoins her troop, the babies also nurse from other females, growing up coddled and indulged by the clan for as long as three years. At that point, the males take up a separate existence.

This coati now climbed purposefully upward and then returned holding a kit by the scruff of the neck. Not hurrying much, she went down the tree, deposited the kit behind a bush, and then back up the tree to get a second kit, who was crying piteously. In some areas – in tropical Guatemala, for example – coatis make nests in trees and the mothers move their babies whenever they feel a nest has become unsafe. Perhaps that is what was happening now, the kits older and more rambunctious. And perhaps the mother had no choice but to do this in front of me. Or perhaps my presence simply didn't disturb her. Coatis often have that kind of insouciance.

I have always wanted to be Jane Goodall, but I would settle for being Bil Gilbert, who in 1970 spent a year watching two bands of coatis in southern Arizona. From a cabin in the Huachuca Mountains, he and his teenage assistants logged 8,500 observation hours, making 5,000 recorded sightings, some brief, some lasting for long afternoons. In hindsight, they made serious mistakes, feeding the coatis dog food and marshmallows to encourage them to linger nearby. Even so, these men had intimate glimpses into the life of this animal, as described in Gilbert's Chulo: A Year Among the Coatis (University of Arizona Press, 1973). They marveled at the ritualistic grooming ("a sensuous, luxurious experience … at times it seems a grooming pair has entered a trancelike state") and the complex relationships among females (the two leaders of one band, dubbed Queenie and Witch, were fast friends, while Witch and Calamity bickered and fought with each other). They learned some of this species' sounds and came closer than any human being to becoming an adopted member of a coati tribe.

Envy is one of Christianity's seven deadly sins and rightfully abhorred. Still, scientists believe that "benign envy" as opposed to "malicious envy" can sometimes serve as an important motivator. In one experiment, subjects who were revved up to be envious (by being asked to write down their most envious moments) significantly boosted their performance on tests of memory and intelligence.

To spend a year with the coatis … to become an adopted member … perhaps even to learn their language of grunts and churrs. …

I feel the power of benign envy. If I lived with the coatis – I tell myself – I'd burrow deep into knowledge. I'd see the face of the Other.

If I lived with the coatis, I'd build a tree house and sleep under the stars every night.

More on Sharman Apt Russell's latest book project, Diary of a Citizen Scientist, can be found on her Facebook page and at www.sharmanaptrussell.com.

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