Exclusive! Jane Goodall on 'Jane's Journey'

As a new film chonicles her remarkable life, the pioneering primatologist talks about the mother who nurtured her dreams, her programs today—and her all-time favorite chimp

by Susan Toepfer • More Features Editor/Entertainment
Jane Goodall image
Photograph: Andre Zacher

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?

J.G. We knew each other very well. She came to Gombe before she started her research because Louis said she had to see how I did it. She might have resented that. She would sit in gorillas’ laps, which I didn’t think was a terribly smart way of doing research, and we had a lot of arguments about her relationships with the local people. She wouldn’t let the local people have any contact with gorillas, because she thought it would make them more susceptible to poachers. I’d say, “Diane, we have staff; they talk about the chimps in the village, they understand them, and if the fishermen see the group, the chimps will hide. The chimps know the difference between us the same way we know about them.” But she wouldn’t try to work with the local people.

More: What are you reading now?

J.G.: I haven’t got time. I’m trying to write a book, so everything I’m reading relates to that. It’s a book about plants and trees and forests and all the ways we are influenced by them. It’s not the book I planned to write, but the plants wanted me to. My original idea was inspirational stories about animals on the brink of distinction, animals who were given a second chance. People need hope, especially young biologists, and amazing stories often get lost amid the doom and gloom.

    My publisher said it’s too long, take out the plants, so the plants decided to be their own book. It’s about their effect on human history, things like the potato famine and the slave trade, the plantations, the opium poppies. The book is enthralling me, so this one will be even longer

More: The documentary allows both you and your son [Hugo van Lawick, nicknamed Grub] to talk rather frankly about your disagreements. Can you speak a bit about that?

J.G.: I learned about what he was thinking when I saw it in the film. That film has done so much to bring us closer together. I was amazed to hear what he said.

More: There seemed to be some particular conflict between Grub and his stepfather, Derek Bryceson.

J.G.: They had a funny relationship for a grown man and a child, but Derek was jealous of Grub. Men are funny things. We couldn’t do without them, but they’re funny things. I’m sure they think we are funny things, too.

More: Where does Grub live now?

J.G.: He has always lived in Tanzania. He’s working to save the Hippo Pool in Lake Manyara National Park. That amazing, wonderful, beautiful place, the future of which we still have not insured. We will save the hippos, though. Grub is also busy building boats for Lake Tanganyika, which will save the life of the tropical hardwoods.

More: Does he have children?

J.G.: Three—18, 16, and a little one, 11, with a different mother.

More: How often do you get to see them?

J.G.: Twice a year, sometimes three.

More: What do you try to teach your grandchildren?

J.G.: To follow their dreams and basically the same values we have for all our youth in the Roots & Shoots program: respect, hard work, compassion, learning that you feel good by helping to make the world a better place; you certainly teach them to respect animals.

More: And what have you learned from your grandchildren?

J.G.: From children and grandchildren, that children are born with their own personalities and interests and they are their own selves.

More: At the end of the documentary, you’re being interviewed by a young boy, sitting behind you in a moving car. I had an awful flashback watching it, because when I was not much older than that child, I was sitting in the same seat, interviewing Margaret Mead. She terrified me.

J.G.: (laughs) Well, he wasn’t terrified. Nobody’s terrified of me, at least not once we meet.

More: I was amused in the documentary to see you drinking whiskey out in the wild.

J.G.: Three times! I told them, “You’re making me out to be a total drunk!” But 

that was a family tradition. Every evening we would gather with my mother and her sister and drink a tot. We called it a tot, you call it a shot. So it’s a tradition wherever I was in the world between 7 and 8 p.m., I would raise a glass and Mum would do the same. Just one little tot a day.

More: You have so much energy. What is your typical diet?

J.G: I became a vegetarian at the end of the ‘60s or early ‘70s. I read Animal Liberation and I learned about intensive farming. I was horrified, shocked; I’m even more shocked now. But I don’t really think about what I eat. I just eat what’s available. When I’m home, my sister cooks nice veggies for lunch and I have an egg in the evening and half a bit of toast in the morning. When I’m on the road, I take what I can get. People know I’m a vegetarian, so they don’t offer me a huge chunk of meat. My son is almost a vegetarian, but he eats fish. One of my grandsons became a vegetarian at 4. He announced he wasn’t going to eat meat anymore and he hasn’t since.

More: What do you think is your greatest achievement?

J.G.: Two things, really—I can’t choose one above the other. One is that through chimps I have been able to help people understand more clearly what animals are, that they do have personalities, minds and feelings. But it was the chimps who enabled me to do that. I first learned it from my dog, but people wouldn’t listen

   The second thing is starting Roots & Shoots. It’s in 131 countries now, with about 16-17,000 active groups and it’s growing all the time. We can save forests and chimps, but if we’re not being better stewards than we’ve been, there’s no point. This is the only program I’ve heard of that is completely holistic: animals, nature, humans, peace and harmony.

More: What is your top priority now?

J.G.: Raising money. We don’t have enough money for our programs. That’s distressing. There are 28 Jane Goodall Institutes around the world. I’m trying to help them raise money. Africa and Roots & Shoots, keeping the programs means raising money. I raise awareness and create opportunities.

More: How can our readers help you?

J.G:  Definitely through donations to the Jane Goodall Institute. But other than money, two things. One is practical: Try to set up a Roots & Shoots group, get one going if you can. Second, if every single person on the planet spent a little bit of time thinking of the consequences of his actions, of your choices, like what you buy. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s not. So the more knowledgeable you are about food and where it comes from, how it’s grown, the more you know about pesticides, child slave labor, about what you wear, the better choices you can make. If you meet an animal in distress, do you leave it there or try to do something to help? Do you know how to help?

   Then there are choices like public transportation, walking, bicycling, even the way you interact with people, the effect you might have on them.  We don’t do enough smiling.

To read about another woman we admire, click on our interview with Gloria Steinem.

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First Published Wed, 2012-01-18 12:17

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