Interview with Jane Goodall

Find out what sustains the author and chimpanzee expert

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Long before reality TV brought us soap operas set in remote jungles, Jane Goodall was giving viewers a glimpse inside the steamy, cliquish, and otherwise very similar world of chimpanzees. During the 1960s, Goodall's work as a brilliant observer of chimps in eastern Africa first captured the popular imagination. Today, the project she began some 40 years ago at the Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania has become the longest uninterrupted field study of any animal group in the wild. Goodall's insight that chimps feel emotions and possess distinct personalities, much as humans do, has revolutionized how we view animals in general.

Now one of the most respected and beloved scientists in the world, Goodall travels almost constantly, speaking out on behalf of chimps and other threatened animals. As the roving ambassador of the Jane Goodall Institute (www.janegoodall.org), she encourages her audiences to recognize the power of individual action in protecting the environment. One of her passions, the Institute's Roots & Shoots program, encourages children to take an active role in helping animals as familiar as the birds and squirrels in their back yards. Another cause is the ChimpanZoo project, whose purpose is to study and improve the lives of the world's captive chimps.

Goodall is the author of numerous books, including Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). She talked with assistant editor Karen Olson during a recent visit to Minneapolis.

What are you reading these days?

It's hard to find time to read while I'm traveling, but lately I've been jumping between two books. One is The Courage of Children by Peter Dalglish, founder of Street Kids International—who I hope to work with to help children in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The other is Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer's account of a young man who disappears in Alaska. I'm fascinated by attempts to get back to nature, both those that succeed and those that fail. It wasn't an overly long book, which I also appreciated. Big fat books are really intimidating when you're traveling all the time.

Where do you get your daily news when you travel?

In places like China, Taiwan, and remote parts of Africa, I usually rely on CNN, or, if I can get it, the BBC World Service, which I think is better. The World Service's radio version is super.

The public television nature show has become an established genre. Do these glimpses into animal life help or hinder your cause?

They're helpful, by and large, but on the other hand, very few accurately portray what's really happening. They come in two kinds: One is all doom and gloom, which people don't want to watch, and the other portrays animals living their own sweet little natural lives. The best approach would combine both views and stress what people can do to help.

Speaking of television, you were in a lighthearted commercial a few years back co-starring chimps watching TV.

Yes. I was reluctant at first, but the chimps only had to be interfered with long enough to catch them on film. What's more, the commercial didn't feature the cute and cuddly baby chimps you usually see on TV, a practice that bolsters the pet trade, which is horrendous. You got Frodo, our biggest male ever, and no one would want him in their living room.

How do chimps really react to TV?

We'd never show wild chimps television, but captive chimps love it, of course. They love the films about the Gombe chimps. If the chimps on the screen are excited, the chimps watching get excited too.

How do chimpanzees communicate?

They have a large repertoire of sounds, each with a different meaning. These sounds are not words, but they do communicate emotions: An appeal for help. An indication of danger. Hello. Here I am. Where are you? Listening. Anger. Fear. They also rely on a rich repertoire of touch and posture and gesture—embracing, patting on the back, kissing, holding hands, swaggering, tickling, punching—very much as we do. And among both chimps and humans, it seems, these gestures are triggered by the same kinds of contact and mean more or less the same thing.

Do chimps make music?

In the wild, they drum on tree trunks, which can't be very satisfactory because it doesn't really sound like much except from a distance. Chimps also display a rhythmic movement that's almost like dancing—a swaying from foot to foot that can be very majestic and beautiful. When they're lying down for the night, they may start calling on one side of the valley and the sounds will be taken up by chimps on the other side. But that's the closest they come to music.

You've done some chat room conferences on the Web.

Yes. I've done one or two of those, but they're not direct enough for me. These disembodied questions come in, and I don't like it. I prefer lectures.

How has fame affected your life?

I hated it at first. It's very British, you know, not to like that kind of thing. But I gradually began to realize that it was important for the media to be on my side if I wanted to get a message across. I don't think I've ever had a bad relation with the media. I've faced what I might call intelligently penetrating questions, but I've never been addressed in a hostile way. I recall a time when AIDS activists were protesting my position against the use of chimps for medical testing. They argued that those trying to protect the animals were condemning people to die instead. But even in that highly charged instance I found that the protesters and the press were willing to discuss the issue with me.

What do you do in your down time?

I talk to journalists.

As a private person with a very public life, what sustains you?

First, I don't think I've chosen this life, I feel I've been pushed into it. And what nourishes and sustains me, primarily, is the sense of my life as a mission. I feel I'm meant to be doing what I do. Second, there are the amazing people I meet, including the children I've encountered through Roots & Shoots. Today, for instance, I talked to 700 kids, and all of them sat in silence, listening intently for 50 minutes. Afterward, one of them came up and whispered in my ear, "I loved your talk and I love you, and you inspire me." And I'm inspired by them.

If you had to make one law, what would it be?

Laws alone are useless. We already have animal-protection laws that mean nothing because they're not enforced—and they never will mean anything until we get to people's hearts. That's why I put so much energy into working with children. But if I could wish one thing into being, never mind the law, it would be that we'd stop overpopulating the planet. It's a terrible situation, compounded in some places by the vast numbers of people who can't afford to move and thus totally destroy the land they're trapped on. Meanwhile, the affluent societies are overconsuming in the most horrifying way. In either case, there are just too many people.

What is the essence of the message you're trying to deliver today?

That every individual can make a difference, and that if we continue to leave decision making to the so-called decision makers, things will never change.