Being only about 18 months old, Jane Goodall doesn't remember the moment, but her mother has since retold it to her.
She had come into little Jane's room only to find that she had taken a handful of earthworms to bed. Years later, Goodall said her mother's supportive reaction helped set the tone for what would be a lifelong love of animals.
"She didn't say, 'Oh, throw those dirty things away,'" Goodall said. "She simply said, 'Jane, if you leave them here, they'll die. They need the earth.' And so I helped her carry them back into the garden."
The story was one of many that Goodall, who's best known for her revolutionary research of chimpanzees in Africa, shared with a packed auditorium Tuesday night at UC Irvine as a guest speaker for the Living Peace Series.
The series is a partnership between UCI and the Center for Living Peace, and previous speakers have included Sir Richard Branson, Charlize Theron and the Dalai Lama.
Goodall, 78, spoke for nearly an hour and included details of her life that were intertwined with an overlaying message of hope for the future and that people can truly make a difference.
In addition to the earthworm incident, she recalled another early influence on her love for animals: Tarzan, who ended up "marrying that other Jane, the wrong Jane."
"That was what really set in stone my dream," Goodall said. "I would grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them."
That goal started in 1957 when she moved to Africa, which was then "a dark continent," — dark in that it was full of mystery.
After securing money for her chimpanzee research, Goodall eventually had a breakthrough observation. She saw a chimp put a grass stem into a termite mound, then pull it out and chew the termites off of it.
"He was modifying an actual object. He was making a tool," Goodall said. "Why was this so special? ... Back then, it was thought that humans, and only humans, use and make tools."
Goodall sent the news via telegram to Louis Leakey, a fellow British archaeologist in Africa who supported her work.
"Now we must redefine man, redefine tools or accept chimpanzees as humans," Goodall recalled him saying.
Other observations she had of the chimps were that their use of nonverbal communications, like patting on the back, swaggering, shaking fists and embracing, are similar to human behavior.
"It was a huge shock when I realized that, like us, they can be violent and brutal," she added. "We see this most often in their interactions between neighboring social groups or neighboring communities."
Goodall said her life changed after attending a conference in 1986.
"I went into that conference as a scientist," she said. "I had this PhD., this wonderful life, and I left as an activist."
Ever since then, she hasn't been in one place for more than three consecutive weeks.
Her activities have included being a U.N. messenger of peace and creating Roots and Shoots, a service program under the auspices of the Jane Goodall Institute.
Throughout her years of activism, she has learned of the destruction of the rainforest, chemicals making their way into the oceans and the perils of genetically engineered foods — problems, as a whole, that are the "horrible poisoning of the planet," she said.
Yet despite the problems, she said she maintains hope for a variety of reasons. Among them is the "indomitable human spirit."
"Somehow, there seems to have grown a disconnect, wider and wider, between this clever brain and the human heart, the seed of love and compassion," Goodall said. "I believe it's the young people who are once again going to join the two so that we can eventually attain our human potential."
Stacey Hentschel, a business consultant from Laguna Niguel, called Goodall's message beautiful.
"I think that inspiration for all of us, whether we're young or old, is to keep remembering there's hope and possibility," she said, adding that "it's about opening our hearts. As [Goodall] said, when people are connected by the heart and the head, great things can happen."
Alyssa Wolk, a second-year UCI student studying earth system science and anthropology, bought her ticket to Goodall's speech as soon as she could and has explored her books.
Her favorite part? Goodall's emphasis on hope for the future and on youth.
"It was really empowering," Wolk said. "I was just holding back tears."