People regularly approach Jane Goodall in airports, tears in their eyes, and tell her she’s their idol. She travels 300 days a year, and at 83, she speaks dreamily about her home in England, the house she grew up in, where her sister still lives with her own family. Goodall will be there soon for a rare five-day vacation, sleeping in the same room with her childhood books—Dr. Dolittle and Tarzan were among her favorites—and looking out the window at the trees she once climbed.
In the 1960s Goodall, perhaps the world’s most famous primatologist, taught us that humans and chimpanzees weren’t as different from each other as people then believed. Our closest relatives have individual personalities, eat meat, and even make and use their own tools. A 1965 documentary about that work, Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, turned Goodall into a global celebrity, and she has been in the public eye ever since. She has used that attention to fund ongoing research in Gombe Stream National Park, in Tanzania, where she did her initial conservation work. But she has also gone beyond her role as a scientist to encourage children to become environmental and social advocates, to develop antipoverty programs in the areas around African nature preserves, and to promote environmental stewardship.
Goodall is on the road again now to publicize a new documentary, entitled simply JANE, which highlights her early-career insights. The film debuts Monday at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, with Goodall in attendance. After that she’ll get her rare break, and then it’s off to Japan, Argentina and Mexico; a few days off and then on to Europe, Africa “and so on and so on until just before Christmas,” she tells Scientific American.
Although immensely practical about the hard work it takes to keep up her social justice mission, Goodall retains the idealism that has propelled her for decades. “Every single individual makes a difference every single day,” she says in her quiet but determined British accent. “We get to choose what sort of difference we’re going to make.”
Goodall spoke to Scientific American about her past work, recent discoveries and plans and hopes for the future.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
You are sometimes criticized for caring too much about animals when there are people suffering. Why do you think it’s important to conserve animals?
Think what the world would be like without animals. It would collapse. Ecosystems must be healthy. By helping the animals, we’re helping the people, too. Certainly in Africa, where we do most of our work, it’s very, very clear that if you don’t work to improve the lives of people living around chimp habitats, they’ll give up saving the chimps. It just won’t work. One of our biggest programs in Africa is working to improve the lives of people in 52 villages around Gombe National Park and spread out through the rest of the chimp habitat in Tanzania—and we have similar programs in Uganda, DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], the Republic of [the] Congo, Senegal and Burundi.
What are your feelings about ecotourism?
Some ecotourism is really important because it brings money into the central government [of those countries], it provides jobs for the local people and educates children better. The trouble is, it tends to be: “Six people in a group brings in so much money. Okay, let’s make it 12.” Then, “Let’s make it 24.”—then you start damaging the very environment and animals that people are going to see. It needs to be carefully monitored and greed mustn’t get in the way of long-term sustainability.
Are you concerned about the direction we’re going in terms of climate change? How do you think human behavior can be changed to address it?
We’re heading toward total disaster and I don’t know how long we have to try and do something about it. What we have to do, which is of great importance, is to stop pandering to the fossil fuel industry and get onto clean, green energy. America could be basically off the grid by now. We’ve got sun, we’ve got wind, we’ve got currents, but we’re adding to the greenhouse gases, recklessly burning fossil fuels, burning forests and [fueling] our desire to eat more and more meat—which is raising millions of animals in these terrible factory farms where they’re treated as though they’re mere things—In fact they’re sentient beings and it’s shocking.
In the United States a number of scientists have become politically active in response to current events. Others think scientists should stay outside of politics. Where do you come down?
I think scientists owe it to future generations to come out of their ivory towers. That’s one thing the Trump administration here has certainly done—it has woken people up and has brought many scientists out…to speak up about what’s going on.
Do you still consider yourself a scientist?
In a way, I’ve abandoned the science, but in a way I haven’t. We have a wonderful research team in Gombe carrying on with the science. That’s my legacy there.
We’re using cutting-edge scientific technology in our conservation efforts— mapping the chimpanzee range—but I think most importantly, teaching local people, volunteers, how to use smartphones and tablets. They have chosen what they will record about the health of their forests. They go in and record illegally cut trees, an animal trap, a chimpanzee nest or a leopard paw print, so village leaders can make responsible decisions. That’s such an important tool of conservation: to become partners with the local people.
What do you think animals offer us in our daily lives?
They have begun having dogs in airports to calm people when they arrive and have lost their luggage and have screaming children. It has proved that having a dog to pet can reduce that stress. In San Francisco and one of the New York airports they have therapy pigs—I love it! I met Lulu [the pig] in San Francisco. She’s charming! She goes around on a little leash, with a little therapy animal jacket. You watch as people pass by, everybody smiles. Literally, it changes the atmosphere—boom. I just love watching how it changes people.
Traveling so much, can you have a pet of your own?
I can’t, can I? One of the things I miss more than anything else in my life is having a dog. That may be my one consolation when I’m no longer fit enough to travel around the world. Maybe I can get a dog again.
It sounds like all of your travels are getting tiresome. Are you ready to retire?
I was given many gifts, but two in particular: one is a very healthy constitution. I can still do this at age 83; two [is] the gift of communication. People are listening. If you happen to have grandchildren, if you happen to love animals, if you happen to realize the spiritual necessity of our relationship with the natural world, if you happen to realize how we depend for the future on the ecosystems of the planet for clean water and air to breathe—and you have a gift to make people understand and perhaps make small changes in the way they live, then you have to use them…. Well, I feel that. I sometimes feel that if there is a Creator, which I believe, some kind of great spiritual force, I’m being pushed.