Q&A: Watch Jane Goodall discuss her groundbreaking work

The pioneering primatologist talks about her time with chimpanzees, what inspired her to become an activist and what individuals can do to help the planet

  • Sep 27, 2019
  • 1,818 words
  • 8 minutes
A portrait of Jane Goodall Expand Image

Jane Goodall is a living legend. She’s a world-renowned primatologist best known for her pioneering work studying chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, Tanzania, and a bestselling author who’s penned award-winning books, such as In the Shadow of Man and Reason for Hope. Since the late 1970s, Goodall has become one of the world’s foremost conservationists, founding the Jane Goodall Institute, which now has 34 locations around the world and focuses on chimpanzee research and protection, as well as collaborative work with communities to impart meaningful environmental change. Through the institute, Goodall also inspires the next generation of conservationists with her Roots & Shoots program operating in nearly 60 countries, including Canada.

“Our goal with young people is giving them support and education around really important issues, and then helping them do their own projects,” says Andria Teather, CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. “This year we had two streams: an Indigenous stream, from Indigenous perspectives on the natural world to bridging communities, and a sustainable food stream, which looked at the choices we make about our food, where we get it from and what the impact to the planet is.” Canadian youth can apply for funding through their website.    

On Saturday, Sept. 28, Jane Goodall Institute of Canada and The Royal Canadian Geographical Society will host a fundraiser at 50 Sussex in Ottawa. To honour her transformative role in environmental awareness and activism in Canada and throughout the world, the RCGS will also present Goodall with its Gold Medal at this event.

“I’ve worked with the American National Geographic magazine ever since 1960, and we work with geographic publications in many countries around the world, so it will be exciting,” she says. “Hopefully, people who love the magazine will say ‘Oh, Jane’s got the Gold Medal,’ and they’ll start reading about these issues, and we’ll gather them into the fold.”

Watch a video of Goodall as she discusses her groundbreaking work, and read more from our interview with her below.


Video: Alexandra Pope/Canadian Geographic

On Jubilee — a childhood stuffed toy chimpanzee — and how she became interested in animals

My father gave it to me. It was probably the only thing my father ever gave me. I still have it today, but that didn’t start me off with a passion for chimpanzees. Nobody had studied them. They wouldn’t think of it.

I was born loving animals. I had a supportive mother. I watched animals; I read books about animals.

When I was four and a half, I went to stay on a farm in the country and it was my first meeting of cows, pigs and horses living as they should live, out in the fields. And my job was to collect the hens’ eggs, and I began asking everybody, “But where does the egg come out of the hen?” And nobody told me, so I waited in the henhouse, until a hen, four hours later came in and laid an egg. Mom didn’t know where I was. I didn’t come in to lunch. She could have gotten mad at me, but instead she sat down to hear the wonderful story about how a hen lays an egg.

On her mother’s support

It was 1957 that I first went to Kenya, when I was invited by a school friend. In those days, a 23-year-old was about a 17-year-old. There were no students going back and forth like they do now. There was nothing. There weren’t even any planes. So, I had to save up money being a secretary. I think it was pretty amazing that Mum just let me go off onto the boat. That was when I met Leakey [Louis Leakey, renowned paleoanthropologist and archeologist] and when he asked me if I would study not just any animal, but chimpanzees. That part of Tanzania was Tanganyika back then, part of the crumbling British Empire, the British authorities refused to have me on my own so I had to have a volunteer, and that was Mum.

On what values her mother imparted on her

Being truthful, being respectful of other people and their religion, and country and culture. Having the courage of my conviction.

On fearlessness in her career

Who’s to say I wasn’t afraid inside, but I was determined and I was obstinate. Of course, there were times when I was scared. I wasn’t scared of going to Gombe and I wasn’t scared of going in the field, that’s true, because I felt that if I behaved right, animals wouldn’t hurt me. People said that was stupid, but they didn’t, so it wasn’t so stupid after all. I was terrified at the thought of going to the University of Cambridge. I was terrified to give my first lecture. But, you know, you overcome these things.

On being thrust into the public eye

Terrible to start with. I hid from the media. I was very shy and it didn’t feel right. I was an ordinary person, and just because I had been out and studied chimpanzees, I was supposed to be amazing. Well, I didn’t feel amazing. I can see now exactly how it all happened and how useful it has been with what I’m trying to do now.

On the 1986 conference that turned her from researcher to activist

That meeting, which was four days in Chicago, we had a session on conservation, which was shocking. We had a session on conditions in captive situations, like medical research, and watched secretly filmed footage. The cruel training of entertainment chimps, taking them from their mothers, beating them. So I left that conference as an activist.

I felt I must try to do something. I didn’t really know what to do, but I started off by getting permission to go into these medical research labs. I’m sure they regretted letting me in. And then I began talking about it, because you can’t talk about it unless you’ve seen it, not really.

It’s taken a long time, and many other organizations helping, but finally there are no chimps left in the U.S., at least not at the national health labs. They’ve all been freed for sanctuary — 400 of them.

Then I went to Africa to study different sites and I learned more about what was happening there: the destruction of habitat and the beginning of the bushmeat trade, the commercial hunting of wild animals for food, the shooting of chimp mothers to steal their babies for sale, chimps caught with hands or feet in wire snares for antelopes or wild pigs, the growth of human populations moving deeper into the forest, and foreign mining and logging companies coming in.

On what she’s working on now

We’ve got 34 Jane Goodall Institutes around the world and they’ve all got different research projects. The main one that I’m involved in is the protection of forests, because one of the very best ways to mitigate climate change is to protect and restore them. We have projects in six other chimpanzee range countries, not just Tanzania. With all of them, in order to conserve the forest, we work with the local people to improve their lives and help find ways for them to make a living without destroying the environment. And they now understand that it’s not just to protect wildlife, but their own futures. So they’ve become our partners. It’s called the TACARE program.

On the Amazon Rainforest fires

It’s terrible what’s happening in Brazil. I will be there next year, raising awareness, meeting with government officials, businesses, if possible, whatever they set up. We let the local people suggest what to do.

I’ve been there before. We have one or two of our Roots & Shoots groups working there already.

On inspiring the next generation of activists

With our Roots & Shoots program, which began in 1991, we’ve had young people working very hard to change the way we do things, ever since that time. And now the program is in nearly 60 countries. There’s a huge amount of tree planting going on. There have been a lot of demonstrations about things like the ivory trade, trade in rhino horn and pangolin scales. In China, there were some demonstrations against shark fin soup. We’ve had young people sit outside Parliament and say that we want to do things differently.

They learned the fact that if you really want to make a difference and change attitudes, you must be doing something yourself, actively. But there’s no question that these demonstrations by young people have been raising awareness. Demonstration alone isn’t enough, but it raises awareness. 

On who inspires her 

Some of the people in government and in high positions who stick to their values even though they may lose the support of their colleagues. Those people are very inspiring. It’s happening in some businesses. They’re beginning to understand that they’ve got to change their ways, and maybe their shareholders don’t want them to. They want to carry on with business as usual. 

I always emphasize that you can’t just blame government, and you can’t just blame big business, because consumers have a role to play too. If you don’t like the way things are done, then we should elect different people and we should not buy certain products. The problem is that so many countries’ democracies are crumbling, and citizens don’t have the ability anymore. It’s really hard. In Tanzania, there’s a big dam being built in a world heritage site, but anybody who opposes it, may be put in jail. China is much the same.

My job is to give young people hope. So if they’re in a very autocratic country, then they just have to hang on to their values, go on learning, making small choices each day and waiting for their time, which surely will come.

On what individuals in free nations can do

Every day we make choices, don’t we? What we buy, what we eat, what we wear. And if we start learning a little bit about these things, we can make ethical decisions. For example, food. One of the best things to change is your diet. As more people around the world eat more meat, there are billions of animals in factory farms. The cruelty is horrendous. And they all have to be fed. Areas are cleared to grow the grain to feed them. Fossil fuel is used to get the grain to the animals, the animals to the abattoir, the meat to the table. Large amounts of water is needed to change vegetable to animal protein. And then the animals produce methane gas. Everybody is well-aware that reckless burning of fossil fuel is creating CO2, the main greenhouse gas, but methane is a very dangerous greenhouse gas, as well. And a high percentage of it comes from animal agriculture. Eating a little bit less meat for people, makes a very big difference. 


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