Jane Goodall: The RD Interview

At 82, Jane Goodall is more driven than ever. Here’s what the famed conservationist has to say about apes, aging and her legacy.

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Jane Goodall
Photo: Jason Gordon

15 Minutes with Jane Goodall

The world’s most famous primatologist stands and lets loose something like this: “Ooo ooo oh-ew oh eee!” This variation on a piercing chimpanzee cry is an effective way to capture an audience’s attention, but Jane Goodall doesn’t need to do anything dramatic to get noticed. Wherever she goes, people approach, sometimes crying or shaking. Sometimes they ask to touch her. Goodall is adored for her groundbreaking work with wild chimpanzees, which evolved into a broader mission for conservation-and a commitment through her global Roots and Shoots youth program to inspire the next generation to do the same. The octogenarian Brit recently visited the Canadian outpost of her Jane Goodall Institute to kick off the latest program, Launch + Link, which teams up teens with business leaders, media figures and other power holders on community initiatives. These days, fuelled by the urgency of her message, Goodall spends more time in airport terminals and hotels than in forests, but she still finds beauty in unexpected places-and hope for our collective future.

Reader’s Digest: You travel 300 days a year. That’s an incredible schedule.

Jane Goodall: It’s stupid. 

So why do you do it?

When you are my age, there’s less time left. I have a message that’s very important. The planet cannot go on replenishing itself. We don’t have much time. 

That sense of urgency aside, how do you stay motivated?

Every day I see children. I think about how we’ve harmed the Earth since I was their age, and that spurs me on. When I began, the forest stretched right across Africa. Now it’s fragmented patches. And it’s the same all over the world. 

Don’t you get depressed?

Of course, but that means I have to fight even harder. You can’t do anything alone, so it’s about galvanizing other people, creating a critical mass of youth who understand that we need money to live but that things go wrong when we live for money.

Working with youth is a major focus for you. Why?

We could wear ourselves out to save a forest or a species, but if the next generation isn’t going to look after it, there’s no point. And unfortunately, the next generation in the Western world is living in an increasingly virtual world. They’re being denied the opportunity to experience nature, when nature plays a really important role in psychological development. 

Have any children of this incoming generation inspired you?

Many of them are amazing. I’ve seen children who visited a patch of land in Texas and removed the exotic plants, replaced them with indigenous species and gradually restored the area to prairie status, with bees, birds and butterflies. I’ve seen kids clean up a stream-not just picking up the garbage, but going upstream, finding out what was polluting the water and learning how to write letters to the polluters and to legislators. 

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Jane Goodall
Photo: Jason Gordon

Childhood is when so many of us develop a love of the natural world. I read a story about your own youth, about how you once brought a handful of worms to bed. 

I was one and a half, and I had this supportive mother, this wise mother. 

She didn’t reprimand you? 

Not at all. A few years later, we went to stay on a farm. I started asking everybody, “Where does the egg come out of the hen?” and nobody told me. So I went into an empty henhouse and waited for hours for a chicken to come in. My poor family didn’t know where I was. Finally my mother saw her little girl rushing to the house, and she listened to me tell her how a hen lays an egg. She could have said, “How dare you go off without telling us? Don’t do it again!” which would have killed my curiosity. That story is about the making of a young scientist: curiosity, asking questions and not getting the right answer, deciding to find out for yourself and learning patience. 

You have a lot of empathy-for people and animals. You were one of the first to assert that animals have personalities and feelings.

I grew up knowing that. When I got to Cambridge University in 1962 after being with the chimps for two years, I was told I’d done it all wrong. I gave the chimps names, not numbers. And I wasn’t meant to talk about personalities or minds capable of solving problems and absolutely not emotion in chimps, because those qualities were unique to human beings. But I had this teacher in childhood who taught me that for all their scientific know-how, the professors were wrong-and that was my dog! 

How is the 82-year-old you different from that young woman who made such powerful connections with chimpanzees 55 years ago?

Hopefully I’m a little bit wiser and have used the experience I had to good purpose. 

What’s surprised you most about the way the world has changed since that time?

I’m more dismayed by what hasn’t changed. I remember vividly the period after the Second World War. I was about nine. I was so shocked by the Holocaust and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Everybody said, “Well, it can’t happen again.” But genocide is still going on. Atomic weapons are poised for action. Also, Western values have become more prominent-the worship of money, materialism, a lack of spirituality. People aren’t making time for family, for friends, for living! It’s getting more and more frenetic. If you don’t answer an email in 10 minutes, you’re bombarded with, “Did you get my email? Is there something wrong with your email? Are you sick? Are you dead?” 

So how should we spend our time?

We should be developing our gifts. Thinking every day about the consequences of the choices we make-what we eat, what we wear, how it was made, all those questions. The purpose of our life is to make the world better and to live fully. As Walter de la Mare wrote, “Look thy last on all things lovely/Every hour.” 

And check your email.

Don’t check your email! Take time to be! I was in an airport the other day, and there were people all around, all on their little machines. There were two sparrows, a male and a female. To properly court, the male needed to find food for his beloved, but the floor was slippery. He kept flying down, and every time he landed, he skidded. Finally he managed to capture a crumb. He flew up. She fluttered her wings, and he fluttered back. It was this enchanting little scene and not a single person noticed. 

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Jane Goodall
Photo: Jason Gordon

What have you learned from animals about a life well lived?

They teach you about living for the moment. Animals enjoy enjoyable things. There is nothing more wonderful than seeing chimps come upon a tree of fruit: they embrace each other and are completely joyful. 

What about the way chimps approach aging and mortality?

They withdraw a bit. They tend not to travel around.

So you’ve learned nothing from them!


How much does your passion for your work have to do with aging well?

It’s the other way around: aging well has to do with having passion. I just read a survey of people over 80, and they found overwhelming proof that those with a passion stayed healthy and fit and driven. The others just succumbed because there was no reason not to. They weren’t sick, just old. They succumbed to oldness. 

You are a groundbreaker in terms of how we understand chimps and humans; you are a trail-blazing scientist; you are an activist hero. What do you hope your legacy will be?

Our programs in Africa are trying to alleviate poverty, because you need the people to become your partners in saving nature. If they are living in dire poverty, they are not going to do it. I hope my legacy is really Roots and Shoots. Another important thing is helping people understand who animals really are. They’re not just things. 

There are people out there who see you as a living saint.

They do. 

How does that make you feel?

I don’t really recognize myself. I cope with it by knowing there are two Janes. There’s me and then there’s somebody whom people have read about. Yes, I’ve something to do with it, but more often I’m trying to live up to it. 

You’re doing a pretty good job.

I grew up in a home where we teased each other all the time. You can’t take yourself too seriously. On the other hand, when people come up and say it’s thanks to me that they got over cancer… two people told me reading my book Reason for Hope kept them from committing suicide. So there’s a purpose to my public image. 

Will your work ever be complete?

No. That’s why we need the new Janes. 

When you let your mind go back to your years in the jungle with the chimps, where do you go? Are there moments you would like to return to?

Oh, yes. David Greybeard, the first one who lost his fear of me. When I gave him a nut and he didn’t want it, but he squeezed my hand, which means reassurance. When Flo let her infant totter up to me and touch me. 

You think about those things now?

I quite often think about them. 

Is that part of how you feed your own spirit?

Yes. That and little interactions I have with people. And I think of Mum, all the time. And I think of Rusty, my teacher dog. I think of him a lot.

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