Jane Goodall’s lifelong work has changed the world. As a young, fearless woman, she traveled to Gombe and made a discovery that challenged what man and science had previously believed to be true about our nearest non-human relatives. Her research into chimpanzee behavior was revolutionary, proving that they did indeed communicate complex concepts with each other, they did have feelings, that they made tools to help them hunt. Goodall’s time observing and researching primates in their natural environment would change the way we see them forever.
Director Brett Morgen has pulled the best minutes from hundreds of hours of unseen footage stored away in the vaults of National Geographic to highlight Goodall’s story as a young woman who pursued her interests and passions to new frontiers and beyond. I caught up with Goodall to talk about revisiting the Gombe National Park, how she feels about the world today, and her meeting with a Swedish scientist that affirmed her hope for the future of our world.
Jane, it is such an honor as a woman to be sitting down with you and talking to you about your work.
I’ve been lucky to have lived the life I wanted to live for many years. Right now though, not so much. I’m traveling so much and it’s not my idea of fun.
What was it like to revisit the footage for this film?
I’ve been going to Gombe ever since, but the way Brett Morgen edited this film, it’s an honest film and he’s managed to recreate those early days before I saw the chimps and the excitement of getting closer to them. It builds up and I was so moved when I saw the footage. It takes us right back into the skin of the 26-year-old girl and the relationship I had with the chimpanzees. I knew all of them, not just the ones that were named. It was like revisiting old friends.
Going back, as a 23-year-old girl, did you always want to travel?
I didn’t want to travel per se. I wanted to see the animals, but to do that you have to travel. The first trip to Africa was very exciting, on a boat, on planes going back and forth. I was 23 at the time going into a strange new world and I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Leakey and everything happened after that.
Did you have any anxieties about being that close to the chimpanzees at that time?
The anxiety was that they ran away and I was afraid I wouldn’t find anything exciting before the money ran out. There was only money for six months.
So you had that time pressure?
We did. I couldn’t really settle down and enjoy being out there until I was assured there would be money. Only then could I appreciate the rainforest, the monkeys, birds, and insects.
You’re observing them and learning that they communicate and use tools for hunting and eating, discovering something groundbreaking to gave us new understanding of their behavior. What was that like?
I was told the difference between us and all the other animals was that only humans had personalities and minds, but I had already been taught as a child by my dog. That’s the only thing I criticized Brett for, because he refused to mention my dog. He had photos, but it wouldn’t have taken two words to mention his name and what he taught me.
I had watched animals all my life and I knew that animals had personalities and that they could work things out. I knew they could be happy or sad. It was exciting because it was proof of something that wasn’t believed to be true and I was seeing it. So, it was tremendously exciting.
When you finally made that contact, what was the feeling?
It was a feeling of pride. I had finally done it. I approached a group and they didn’t run away. David Greybread lost his fear before the others, he helped to calm the others down.
There are all these hours of footage that existed. Did you have any say in the selection process?
Nothing. I didn’t see it until it was finished.
Sadly, we are now in a world where we have Trump —
It’s a nightmare world right now. You’ve got Trump and all over the world you have people who don’t care about the environment and they just care about development, development, development, and materialism.
You’ve been at the heart of advocacy for the environment and conservation. What does that do to you to see us destroying the earth?
It’s shocking. It’s always been happening and but more so now. There’s less love and this is why the travel. I’ve been doing is to develop Roots and Shoots which is now in 100 countries.
Talk about that expansion of Roots and Shoots?
There are now over 100 groups, it could be more. Some groups we don’t even know exist and then we find out by chance that they’re in remote parts of Tanzania or Keyna. They’ve been doing all this and we don’t even know about it. I don’t know the exact number of children, but it’s pre-school, university and everything in between.
The main message is every one of us makes a difference and we have a choice about the kind of difference we are going to make. If I turn lights off, if I pick up trash, if I donate some money, when you then multiply that a million and a billion times, you start moving towards a better world. My hope is that we have young people who understand that yes, we do need money to live, but it goes wrong when we live for money. We live in this materialistic world we’re treating the natural resources of our planet as if they’re infinite and they’re not. You hear the expression, we haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, but borrowed it from our children. We’ve stolen it, we’re stealing their future and we have to get together to start paying back.
You’re such an inspiration in everything you do and all you’ve done, but what was it like starting out in a man’s world? What would you say to young girls to help them?
I would say what my mother said to me, I wanted to go to Africa and live with animals when I was ten. Everybody laughed at me, but mum said, “If you really want this, you’re going to have to work hard and take advantage of opportunity but don’t give up.” That’s what I say to young people around the world and the number of people who have come up to me and written to me saying, “I really want to thank you because you taught me that because you did it, I can do it too.”
For the young people, I tell them, give it time to find out what you really want to do, don’t rush into something, and then give it everything.
Have things changed and progressed since you started?
Oh yes. They go to Gombe now and they love it and think it’s a wonderful experience. They don’t know how it was. There are more tourists. The forest outside Gombe was a huge forest and it was destroyed. I realized people were destroying it because they were so poor. They had to cut down the last trees to try to grow food, and they didn’t have money for food elsewhere. That started our whole big program and they’ve turned around to become huge partners in conservation.
When you see Trump issue an executive order to allow trophy hunting, what does that do to you? It made me furious that he could do that without understanding anything about conservation and how important it is.
I was infuriated, but it’s no worse than the trophy hunters who go out killing wonderful animals. It’s the same mentality: “animals are expendable and they are here for us.” There was a huge error when the original Hebrew text of Genesis was mistranslated. Where it says, “God gave man dominion over the animals…” Dominion was not the original word, the original word was something between a wise king and a good steward and that is very different from dominion.
Right from that moment on, the far-right Christians have said, we can do whatever we like with animals. God gave us the world to do with as we like. I think it’s going to take children to change the world and raise a new awareness.
What about climate change and their denial of that?
They’re denying it, but they’re not responsible for it. Each successive administration from around the world has been destroying the planet gradually. More and more people eat meat and it’s destroying the environment. Human populations grow. Countries get wealthier so they take up more of the natural resources and want the same unsustainable lifestyle they see in the Western World and it led to the fact that we all now see climate change.
Jane, is there hope?
There is hope. I talked to a very active climate change scientist from Sweden. I’ve always said we can’t expect we can have things as they were, but we can slow down climate change if we all take the right action. When I talked to this guy, he took me down to the depth, this is what we’re doing and if we going on doing this, then this is going to happen and in one hundred years everything is gone. Then he turned around, a bit like me and said, “It doesn’t need to be this way.” He pointed out what could be done, and I said, “This is great because I’ve been saying, maybe I’m just saying this that there’s a window of a chance because I’m an optimist, but now you’ve given me facts to prove my optimism is grounded on good science.”
The documentary is so beautiful and stunning. Was there a particular memory that was triggered while watching it, something that wasn’t on screen?
Most of it, I was immersed in. I think the one part I loved was my son when he was little in the water on the Serengeti, that was special. Seeing the early days with Hugo and when we fell in love, it was moving and sad. My son and grandson were at the Hollywood Bowl and they loved it, they were so moved by it. It was amazing with Philip Glass playing live. It was incredible.
I saw the footage from that night and it seemed so special.
Well, the insect sounds were recorded over a month in Gombe. Bernie Krause who lives near San Francisco, he lost everything in the fires. He lost his house, his equipment, the guitar he plays, and he got out with himself, his wife and the clothes on his back. It was so sad, but his sounds really add to the ambiance of the film.
Jane, thank you for being an inspiration and for all the work you do.