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A conversation with Jane Goodall

Animals, mankind, and Mother Nature

Created date

November 20th, 2012

After 54 years as the world s foremost expert on primates, Jane Goodall, 78, is a household name. In this time, she s broken new ground in the study of chimpanzees only to emerge mid-career as an activist for animals, humans, and Mother Nature. Recently, she spoke with the Erickson Tribune about her life s work and current passions. Tribune: I ve read that you attribute your early interest in chimpanzees to a toy chimp named Jubilee, given to you by your father. You had once written that your mother s friends were horrified by the toy, thinking that it would frighten you. Goodall: That s actually something of a fallacy. I find that people often put two and two together the toy and my life s work with chimps, that is. Actually, my father got the toy for me because of my love for all animals, not chimps specifically. I do have very fond memories of that toy, though. It had a very lifelike face and a music box that played a beautiful, old-fashioned tune. As for being frightened of it, it was a very special thing to me and I loved animals as a girl, so there was no reason to be frightened of it. It did, however, horrify my mother s friends. That I remember quite well. Tribune: What was it that you found fascinating about animals in general? Goodall: Everything, really. My memories of this fondness predate my ability to walk and talk. I suppose I was just born loving animals. As to why, I think it s just one of those things that you can t really put your finger on. Tribune: Over the years, you have built an amazing career and an incredible legacy. What was it that inspired you to pursue this course in life specifically your work as a primatologist and lecturer? Goodall: Well, in the mid-1980s, I went to a conference where just about all of those who studied chimps came together for the first time. We had a session on conditions in captivity, and, more specifically, the conditions facing those chimps used for medical research. This was 1986. In the 25 or so years leading up to this, I had spent most of my time in the forest observing chimps and how they lived and interacted with one another. This was a wonderful time for me. During this period, I built a huge amount of research on chimps, I wrote several books, had a child. I felt as though I had done it all, but when I went to this conference and saw what was happening, that changed everything. I went into this conference a scientist and emerged an activist. Since then, it doesn t feel as though I ve been more than three weeks in any one place. Tribune: What do you think are the greatest threats facing wild chimpanzees today? Goodall: In some parts of the world, deforestation and a loss of their habitat present a great threat, and growing human populations would certainly coincide with that threat. In the Congo Basin, the greatest threat is hunting. This is not the subsistence hunting that used to prevail that is, hunting solely for the purpose of feeding yourself and your family. The bush meat trade is shooting just about anything and everything that walks, chimpanzees included. Tribune: What are some recent animal-related issues about which you re most passionate? Goodall: Well, there are so many issues, but I still think one of the biggest ones for me is that fact that chimpanzees are becoming endangered and there are other problems that stand in the way of addressing that. In the early 1990s, I flew over Gombe National Park in Tanzania and saw that it was but a small forested oasis surrounded by bare hills that had once been covered by trees. When I first went there in the 1960s, it wasn t like this at all. It was a rich, lush landscape. So, it was clear that the people there were struggling to survive, and there was no way that we could work to protect the chimps if we didn t try to help the people. So that led me to found TACARE (Take Care), an organization that has been working with Tanzanians to address their foremost concerns mainly health care, clean water, education for their children, growing food. Today, we re in 52 villages in that area, which I think signals success and progress. Tribune: Looking back on your days as a scientist, it seems that your method of study, which was based almost entirely on observation, was the best way to learn about the various personality traits that make chimpanzees so much like humans. Do you think there are limitations to those methods that neglect observation? Goodall: Well, I was taught that in order to be a good scientist, you have to be absolutely objective and have no empathy with the beings that you are studying. And that, to me, is quite ridiculous because chimpanzees differ from humans genetically by just over 1%. The similarities between us are remarkable. Their brains and nervous systems are just like ours. That said, why wouldn t you think at least that when they kiss, embrace, and swagger, and do many of the very same things that we do, that they wouldn t seem a bit like us? I ve always started off in my studies by saying, Well, it looks that way, and I think I understand that because that s what we do. And then you test that to see if you re correct. Tribune: Speaking of testing theories, do you remember if you entered into this field of study with any misconceptions about chimpanzees? Goodall: Not really, but only because in the 1950s and 1960s, nobody knew much about them. I d watched them plenty in captivity, but anyone who knows anything about animals knows that two chimps in a cage and often, a small cage at that can t possibly be behaving as they would in the wild. So, I had no preconceived notions when I entered the field for the simple fact that I hadn t enough knowledge on which to base preconceptions. It was all an open book to me. Tribune: What are some of the behavioral differences that most clearly distinguish chimps in captivity from those in the wild? Goodall: For one thing, those in the wild will typically walk several kilometers in a single day. They interact with each other on a much deeper level. In fact, I would say that the differences are so numerous that they re difficult to list. Some of these differences are immediately apparent. When you see chimps locked in a zoo cage, it s usually two or three of them together. In the wild, you might see them in groups of about 50, and they come and go. They can travel alone; they can travel in small groups; they can gather excitedly when there s good food available. But again, the similarities between chimps as a species of animal and humans are remarkable. I ve observed much the same interactions as far as kissing and embracing; the same affection between a mother and her offspring; even their ability to make and use tools. These are very exciting observations. We are not nearly as far apart as some may think. Tribune: Given your endeavors not only with wildlife but with the people of Africa work that I imagine constantly keeps you on the move what do you do to unwind? Goodall: Well, I m very good at living in the moment, so relaxation for me can be something as simple as sitting in the shade of a nearby tree. That s very unwinding for me. Sometimes, I m lucky enough to come across a dog. I love dogs and they help me to unwind [laughs]. In the evening, I love sitting with friends and talking over a glass of red wine or scotch moments that often turn a bit silly, much to my delight. Tribune: And what advice do you have for those who aspire to follow in your footsteps as an advocate for animals and humanity? Goodall: We have an educational program for young people that we started in Tanzania and is now in 131 countries. It s called Roots & Shoots, and it basically carries the message that every single one of us matters and that we can have a positive impact on the world every single day. The program started with high school students. It now goes all the way from preschool up through university. We have some groups for senior citizens as well. Each group chooses three projects to make the world a better place: to help people; to help animals; and to help the environment. I would advise young people who might want to follow in my footsteps to join Roots & Shoots. Finally, my advice to them is to never forget that each one of us matters and so do the choices that we make. For more information on Jane Goodall and her initiatives, visit her online at and