Best known for her groundbreaking research on chimpanzees—animals she started studying in Tanzania as a disarmingly beautiful, fearless young woman in her 20s—Jane Goodall today has widened her interests to a far-reaching environmental crusade. At 77, she works unceasingly for causes devoted to conservation and animal welfare, writing books, lecturing around the world and promoting her youth organization, Roots & Shoots. Now, an engaging documentary, Jane’s Journey (out on DVD and to be seen on the Animal Planet channel later this year), traces her physical path from London to Gombe Stream National Park, as well as her emotional passage from a childhood love of animals to an empathetic sojourn among them. More spoke to Goodall about the new film and her exceptional life.
MORE: Dr. Goodall, it is an honor to talk to you, but also a special pleasure for me, because when my daughter was about nine years old, she used to pretend to be you. She had a whole Jane Goodall outfit, with binoculars and camera, and she’d go out into the backyard and study, like, squirrels.
Jane Goodall: (laughs) Wonderful.
More: The first thing that struck me in the documentary was how hard you still work. You travel more than 300 days a year. Why at this point push yourself so hard?
J.G.: Because there’s less of my life left and so much to do.
More: You were only 23 when you first went to work in Africa.
J.G.: Yes, but I worked with [Kenyan paleontologist] Louis Leakey for a year, then it took another year to get research money, so I didn’t start with the chimps until I was 26.
More: What in your upbringing gave you the courage and confidence to go to Africa, to make such a bold move?
J.G. My mother. I had a wonderful mother. She supported my dreams when everybody else laughed at them She was the sort of mother that if you really did your best but not a very good job, she would never say, “That’s not good enough.“ She would know if you tried. Of course, if you hadn’t tried, she knew that too, and you would want to do better next time.
More: Tell me about the chimp you named David Graybeard. He really helped you break through in your research.
J.G.: David Graybeard for some reason was less afraid of people. We have no idea why, but it turned out that sometimes the fishermen camped along the beach would report seeing one male chimp eating figs. So it was not surprising that he was the first to let me get close to him and that he was the one to come to camp to feed on palm nuts and find bananas. That’s how my friendship with him began.
More: Is he your all time favorite chimp?
J.G: Absolutely. He was such a special personality. All the young chimps loved him. He was non-aggressive as a leader, but chimp leaders don’t have to be aggressive. Some rule by fear, others not. An alpha who rules by fear doesn’t last so long; the leaders who are quite small and quite intelligent and not aggressive last longer. David’s best friend Goliath was aggressive.
More: These chimps are so human to you—you were the first to give them names, not numbers—that I wonder what you think of the Planet of the Apes movies.
J.G. I haven’t seen the new one. I saw the original and I loved the idea of humans having to go through what we put chimps through.
More: What was your relationship with [murdered gorilla researcher] Dian Fossey? Were you friends?