February 22, 2017

Jane Goodall interview

In 2007 I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Jane Goodall. Excerpts from that interview have appeared O (Oprah’s magazine), The Explorer’s Journal and Earth Island Journal. Here’s the Goodall interview from EIJ, click to read it or see the text below:

From a very early age, Jane Goodall showed a keen interest in observing animals. One day, when she was four, she spent hours crouching in a henhouse trying to see how a hen laid an egg. By the time she was eight, Goodall says she’d decided she wanted to go to Africa someday and live among wild animals.

Goodall’s parents divorced when she was 12, and when she graduated high school the family didn’t have the funds to send Jane to university. But her mother, Vanne, recognized her daughter’s fierce intelligence and intense desire to explore the world, so she encouraged Jane to attend secretarial school – because secretaries could find jobs anywhere.

In 1960, after working with paleontologist Dr. Louis Leakey, Goodall studied chimpanzees living in the Gombe reserve in Tanzania. The ongoing study that Goodall began 50 years ago showed that chimpanzees use tools, eat meat, and that some chimps that haven’t seen each other for days hug and leap for joy when reunited. After marrying a National Geographic photographer, having a son, going through a divorce, and losing her second husband to cancer, Goodall left Gombe to advocate for the preservation of wild chimpanzees and the forests they call home.

Since then she has broadened her advocacy through the Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots & Shoots youth program. She is a tireless champion for ecological sustainability, traveling some 300 days of the year to speak to audiences around the world about the necessity of wilderness conservation and environmental protection. I met Goodall on a chilly day in a New York City hotel, and she looked remarkably youthful for a person in her mid-70s.

– Michael Shapiro

One of your first books was called, In the Shadow of Man, and Dale Peterson’s biography is entitled, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man. Do those two titles describe the arc of your life so far or perhaps the evolution of who you’ve become?

When I first saw chimpanzees using tools and making tools, it was amazing because at that time it was thought that only humans used and made tools. We were defined as “man the tool maker.” And so Louis Leakey, my mentor, when I told him about it, he said, “Now we have to redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.” We haven’t accepted chimpanzees as human, so we redefined man.

Starting with your early work it seemed as though you intuitively knew that the proper way to study chimpanzees was to go into the forest alone, get them used to you, and then observe their behavior. How did you know to do that given that scientific doctrine said everything about your approach was …

Was wrong. Well, first of all, I wasn’t a scientist. I hadn’t got a degree. I had an unbiased mind, which is why Leakey chose me [for the chimp study in Tanzania]. I mean, how else would you go in and study an animal? All the books I’d read about people being out in nature, all the early naturalists, they would wander off alone and see things. It just intuitively made sense, that where two or three people would be scary, one person would be less so.

You began the Gombe study without an advanced degree and then you returned to get your doctorate.

I was very nervous, as you can imagine. There were all these professors, and it was very shocking to be told that I had done everything wrong. I’d been out in the field a year and of course I got to know some of the chimpanzees and I had given them names: David Graybeard and Goliath and Flo and Fifi and Mike and all the rest. They told me I shouldn’t have done that – I should have given the chimpanzees numbers. That would have been scientific.

They also told me that I couldn’t talk about chimpanzees having personalities. The fact that they all had their own vivid personalities didn’t mean a thing. That it was only humans who were supposed to have personality. In the same way I couldn’t talk about them having intellectual ability. [Conventional thinking believed that] they didn’t have a brain capable of thinking; they didn’t have a mind, that was unique to us too, and they absolutely didn’t have emotion, nothing like despair or anger or fear and sadness or happiness. Those were unique to us. Why shouldn’t they all have names? Why must they have numbers? That’s what people in concentration camps had: numbers.

Fifty years on, what do you feel are the most important discoveries you made about chimpanzees?

Well, the initial discovery of tool use and toolmaking was really, really important because it woke up science. It was the first breaking down of the barrier between us and them, which was thought to be so solid at that time.

This was when you saw them with sticks taking termites out of mounds.

Yes, with straws, little blades of grass. And since then, it’s been shown that in all different places where chimps have been studied there are different tool-using behaviors, and the young learn it from the adults by watching and imitating, which also was thought to be a human thing. So we can talk about primitive cultures and that’s another great blow at this nonexistent wall between us and them.

And I think showing that they have similar emotions, that they have personalities, that there are these long-term supportive bonds between mothers and offspring, and brothers and sisters, that they’re capable of love and altruism on one hand, and brutality, violence, and war on the other. So in all those ways they are so much more like us than anybody would have predicted.

In terms of your decision to leave Gombe, it seems clear you were motivated by your desire to bring education and activism to people around the world in hopes of preserving Gombe, and perhaps the entire planet.

Well, I didn’t start off thinking about the entire planet [laughs]. I started off thinking of chimpanzees in Africa and forests. I began in Africa.

In 1986, I made the commitment to leave the forests and go on the road and try and spread a message of awareness, to try and help the chimpanzees languishing in five-foot-by-five-foot cages in medical research labs and help the chimps in bad zoos and circuses. Gradually, from that decision, as I began traveling in Africa, and then traveling around the world, I realized that everything was interconnected, that many of Africa’s problems could be directly related to unsustainable lifestyles of the affluent communities, like us, around the world. So the mission of JGI [the Jane Goodall Institute] grew.

Can you tell me how the connections evolved and how you broadened your work throughout the past couple of decades?

First I was in Africa talking to government officials, trying to involve some of the local people like we already were doing at Gombe, and the more I traveled in Africa looking at all the terrible problems Africa faces – the environmental destruction and the crippling poverty and the disease and the overpopulation and the ethnic violence – it became very clear that not all, but some, of the problems of Africa were really our fault. They were because of colonialism, because their resources have been taken and they hadn’t been paid for them and still were being taken.

So I thought I need to talk about this kind of thing in the European Parliament and in the United States. I began doing more talking and incorporating these kinds of issues into the talks.

And the more I traveled, the more I met so many young people between 16 and 30, young people who seemed to have lost hope, some of them were depressed, some of them were bitter, angry, even violent, some of them were just completely apathetic. So I began spending more and more time talking to them, and they all said basically the same thing: We feel this way because we think you [the older generation] have compromised our future, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And they are right, we’ve definitely compromised the future.

This Roots & Shoots program began to try and bring hope to the young people who’d lost it. Because if our youth loses hope, there is no hope. We may as well give up.

Your most recent book is titled, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink. I find that optimism and hope infuse your work. Yet there are millions of people who are not only ignorant of environmental degradation but are almost aggressively pursuing it.

I always twist it around and say, okay, they’re doing this and I think they’re wrong, so how do I get them to listen? You can’t argue – it doesn’t work. And you can’t point fingers – that doesn’t work either. So you have to try to get into their hearts. There are people who put blinders on and they don’t want to listen because they know if they did that they might have to make changes in their lives, and they don’t want to. So those are the kind of people that you have to find ways of reaching, finding a message that will actually make them think. It works in different ways, different people respond to different bits of message.

How do you personally stay hopeful in the wake of environmental devastation, chimpanzees in cages, and global warming? How do you remain so serene?

Well, I’m giving myself a big dose of medicine right now: The next book I’m writing is about animals rescued from the brink of extinction, ecosystems restored that were totally destroyed. This is amazing – I’m really having fun with this. I’m meeting the most extraordinary people.

Interviewer’s note: Hope for Animals and Their World was published in 2011. This link goes to Amazon but buy it at your local indie bookstore if you can.

One bird species, the black robin in New Zealand, was down to two, one male and one female. Imagine. And this man wouldn’t give up. He helped this pair, he would take eggs away, and they would hatch somewhere else and he would bring the babies back. Now there are 500.

I’m meeting people all over the world who are doing this kind of thing. Nature is really resilient when you give her a chance, and all around the world people are now beginning to admit that we’re right – there is global warming.

People are beginning to change their ways. Companies are beginning to start doing some more environmentally friendly things. People are beginning to change their lives a little bit everywhere. And then you’ve got these amazing people, this indomitable human spirit.

Then you’ve got the youth, you see, so where do I get energy? Well, everywhere I go there are groups of young people. We [Roots & Shoots] are in more than 90 countries with our program, and we’ve got about 9,000 active groups, preschool through university, and they’re all choosing three projects to make the world better – one for people, one for animals, and one for environment, with a thread of peace and harmony running through it.

And everywhere I go there are these shining eyes saying, ‘We’d like to show Dr. Jane what we’ve done to make the world a better place.’ There’s enthusiasm and commitment and courage sometimes in some countries. So you can’t give up. With our backs to the wall, we’ve always done pretty well as a species.

Can you give me a sense of how your efforts have reached young people in the developing world?

I’ll give you one story: In eastern Congo, for the people living near the forests, a wild animal is food. That’s how they think – they’re hunters. They don’t have any domesticated animals. They have traditionally gone out and shot something. There’s been a civil war, and there’s more people, so it’s devastating the environment. And we have 100,000 of them over in a refugee camp in Tanzania. They’re going hunting illegally around there.

Five years ago we started Roots & Shoots in the refugee camp. Two young Tanzanians who had done Roots & Shoots at school – they got Roots & Shoots into 15 of the schools in the camp. So this story I heard when I was last in Tanzania: There was a group of nine kids, about 10 years old. While they were looking for firewood they found a young bushbuck fawn, that’s about the size of the baby goat.

Ah, food! So they caught it and were taking it home to kill it, but three of them, three out of nine, belonged to Roots & Shoots. They said, “But we shouldn’t be doing this – it’s not legal.” And the others said, “Well, we’ve always done it.” And they said, “Yes but this animal has a right to its life. We don’t need to eat this food. We are given food.” So they argued a bit and the others said, “Alright, well, we won’t kill it. We’ll take it home and look after it as a pet.” The three kids said, “We don’t believe you, and even if you don’t kill it your parents will.” So in the end they took it back and let it go.

And the teacher who told me, the Congolese teacher, he was crying. He couldn’t have imagined hearing this from a Congolese child. He said you couldn’t imagine how extraordinary this is.

So those are the stories that give hope. It shows that you can change – people say you can’t change the culture. Well you can. You have to start somewhere and hope that it spreads. If the time is right, it will. And if it doesn’t, well, I’ll be dead [laughs].

Michael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration. Shapiro writes for National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle.


  1. I enjoyed reading the interviews in A Sense of Place.
    This interview with Jane Goodall has also been a pleasure to read. A good interview such as this is deceptively simple, with what Oliver W. Holmes described as “the simplicity on the far side of complexity”.

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