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Jane Goodall is a primatologist
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Jane Goodall is a primatologist
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"You don’t change people by lecturing them and pointing fingers. You can only change people if you get into their heart, and that’s with stories."
14 February 2017

Jane Goodall is a primatologist

Interview by Livia Albeck-Ripka
Photography by Leah Robertson and Hamed Uood

Livia Albeck-Ripka on Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall often jokes that Tarzan married the wrong Jane. “That other Jane,” she says, was a wimp and a sissy. Jane Goodall, however, is nothing of the sort.

She has spent more than 25 of the past 30 years moving through countless airports, taxis, lobbies and auditoriums, tirelessly fighting for chimpanzees. I meet her at the end of one of these long days, looking over the cloudy city of Melbourne from the 30th floor of her hotel.

This life is a far cry from Jane’s beginnings as a 23-year-old crossing the ocean to the “dark continent” of Africa. She had loved Tarzan as a child, and was insistent that one day, she would live with and write about chimps, however naive the idea sounded to others. While her peers were vying for jobs as airhostesses, Jane was saving up to go to Kenya and live out her dream. By a stroke of luck, the famed archaeologist and paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, offered to send her to Gombe National Park to conduct one of the first studies of wild chimpanzee behaviour.

For the next 25 years, Jane lived in the Tanzanian forest, maintaining little contact with the outside world. She married twice: once, to the photographer who made her a National Geographic cover girl, and then to the park’s director, whose death six years later tore her apart. Jane’s son to her first marriage, Hugo (better known as Grub) was terrified of the chimps. Once, she rushed to his cot when she heard the chimps calling in the way they do only when they’ve found meat, to discover that a student was simply replaying old recordings of their sounds.

During her time in Gombe, Jane observed that chimps had the capacity for humour, awe, compassion, brutality, warfare, and most significantly, toolmaking. When she faxed Leakey news that she had observed a chimp stripping back a blade of grass to fi sh for termites, he wrote, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!” Nevertheless, Jane was criticised by the scientific community for her lack of experience and objectivity—insults no doubt bolstered by the fact that she was a woman. She had named and grown close to the animals she studied, and was mocked, as well as praised, by the media, who crafted the cult of Jane, without which, her work wouldn’t have been funded.

But unlike “that other Jane,” she wasn’t feeble, and upon realising the dwindling numbers and devastation of the chimp’s natural habitat in the mid 80s, Jane left the peace of the forest. Since then, she has campaigned on the road more than 300 days a year, and is never in one place longer than three weeks. Her toy monkey companion, Mr H, is a talisman for the silenced. He has met more than four million people.

It’s hard to fathom how an 80-year-old can sustain the battle, but Jane speaks in “musts” rather than “want tos”; dismissing the idea of sacrifice. Behind a face whose lines tell the story of over half a life crusading, there’s a young woman longing for adventure and freedom, who had no idea of the legend she would become. Many have called her “the voice of the voiceless” but it’s the chimps, insists Jane, who gave her a voice. Perhaps that’s why she most often introduces herself with the pant-hoot of a chimpanzee.

This story originally ran in issue #40 of Dumbo Feather

How many times do you think you’ve had your picture taken in your life?

I honestly wouldn’t like to think about it. I could wallpaper a mansion.


I could wallpaper the whole of the Tate gallery!

I’m sure there are people who would like to live in that mansion… you have a lot of fans. And you must have earned some new ones here?

One man came up to me in the airport and gave a $100 donation.


Yeah. He said, “You’re beautiful.” Another one compared me favourably with… not the wombats… the Wallabies! He said, “They’re something, but you’re better.”

So how has it been going, the touring?

Busy, busy, busy. Very exhausting schedule.

It must be tiring travelling around the world, more than 300 days a year?

Of course, it’s horrible! Airports, planes, hotels. You know… On, and on, and on.

But you still do it.

I have to. I have to!

This story originally ran in issue #40 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #40 of Dumbo Feather

If you care about the future, if you care about the present, if you care about what’s going on and you think that there’s something you can do to make a difference—what option do I have?

If people didn’t tell me that they get inspired to change, that they now realise their life is more meaningful than they thought, if children didn’t write and say, “You’ve taught me I can do it too”… I mean I have to go on, don’t I? It’s a gift. If you have a gift and you don’t use it, not very good.

Is it a gift? From what I know about you, you seem incredibly hard-working…

Oh yes, there’s a lot of work, communication, writing. I always loved writing. I never thought I could speak, and then I found I could. But have I worked to get it all perfect? Yes.

When you say you never thought you could speak, what do you mean?

Because I’m so shy, desperately shy! As a child, I could not stand up in front of my class.

Really? And what changed?

Well, I took money from the National Geographic and it was agreed—not by me, but by my mentor Louis Leakey—that one of the things I would do for them was to write a book. That wasn’t a problem. But National Geographic also do a series of lectures, and I would have to give one of those lectures. I was at Gombe when I got this letter from Louis Leakey telling me… I prayed to break a leg or something so that I wouldn’t have to do it.


Yes, literally [laughs]. And you know, I was so frightened, and nobody noticed. I found I could do it. I found that words came, I found that I could make people laugh. And eventually, I found I could make people cry.

Obviously, you get more confident as you get older. To start with I wasn’t confident, and then I would feel better, and then I would move a little bit out of my comfort zone into some new aspect and I’d be nervous all over again. But obviously by the time you get to 80, you know, if you haven’t become a little bit more self-confident… then you probably shouldn’t be doing it! I was shy of speaking in public. I was shy going into rooms full of people, but once I was with people, I wasn’t so shy. I guess in the beginning I had leadership qualities…

So you see yourself, now, as a leader?

Well I have become one, yes. If a leader is somebody that other people follow. So I’d better become a better leader and have more people follow me, because we don’t have so much time to change attitudes.

It’s funny, I read that you once went to Michael Jackson’s house, and told him off for keeping his pet chimp, Bubbles.

Yes [laughs]. I knew absolutely that what he was doing was wrong. And I was more than happy to tell him so.

I said something like, “Well Michael, you know I don’t approve of your going around with a pet chimp, don’t you?” And he said, “Yes.”

I said, “You know I don’t approve of putting clothes on chimps, because it’s disrespectful.” It was a very amicable conversation.

So did you manage to change his attitude?

I think he understood. But, you know, he was run as a sort of show, really, by his people. A lot of the things he did were things that he was told to do.

Like all of us in some way I guess… I think we too often view our relationships with animals as one of ownership; keeping them as pets, using them as food. But you’ve spent your life teaching people that animals, like us, are sentient beings—how would you describe your relationship to them?

As one of respect. At the age of about 10, I read Tarzan of the Apes and knew I wanted to go to Africa—it could have been another place where there was wilderness, but Africa came top—and live with animals and write books about them. So it wasn’t a drive to study them in the scientific way; that was imposed upon me.

When I was 23, a school friend invited me to Africa. I quit my job at the time in London and worked as a waitress to save for the boat fare. When I arrived, I met Louis Leakey and he suggested I might like to live with chimps, which was beyond my wildest dreams. It took a year back in England, while he tried to get money and permission. They wouldn’t let me go alone, so my mother came to meet me, and when I finally went to Gombe, it was 1960. It was a dream come true, but at the same time, I was looking up at the mountains along the edge of Lake Tanganyika, seeing the thick forest and the valleys, wondering, How on earth am I going to find them [laughs] let alone study them!?

Were you scared?

I wasn’t scared. It was a sense of total unreality. I just had this feeling that it would work out, I didn’t really know how. When I started climbing the mountains, right at the beginning, I was made to take the game ranger with me.  I wasn’t allowed to be alone. After a couple of months they realised that, you know, I was crazy perhaps, but it was okay. So I was able to go alone.

That was really when the chimps began to lose some of their fear. One day, my cook told me that one of the chimps, dear-old David Greybeard, had come to my camp. Then when I met a group in the forest, the others were ready to run, but they looked from David to me, and back again. I suppose they thought, Well, she can’t be so frightening after all! Then I began to learn about the others and their personalities, watch their behaviour and gradually came to understand the meaning of the gestures and postures and sounds.

And you forged this incredible relationship with them. You were accepted into their society.

I wasn’t really accepted into their society. I was trusted by their society. That’s the difference. You know, Dian Fossey sat on the alpha male gorilla’s lap!


She made their sounds back to them… I didn’t want to do that. Okay—maybe right at the beginning. It was magic when David Greybeard let me groom him. It was magic when I could play with Figan and Fifi. I think those relationships were really important in cementing my love and my determination to carry on. We don’t touch them anymore, but it was important at the beginning.

But it’s a kind of fantasy to have that intimacy with other beings, like Tarzan did, isn’t it? Was there a shift, when the relationship became more complex, one of respect?

Well at the beginning, there was no blueprint for long-term study. The maximum that seemed possible was two years. Most studies were one, or less. So in those early days it was: Well I must make the most of it and get as close as I can because it’s all going to stop. And then of course, it turned out it didn’t have to stop. I remember the day it came to me: Of course I need to get people in, involve them so that they can study if I’m not here, and the study can go on. It was a very special moment. Kind of like a “wow” moment.

And then, you changed the way we see ourselves as human beings, which is a pretty incredible feat…

It wasn’t me that changed our understanding, it was the chimps. I used the chimps to help change people’s attitudes. See ourselves as part of the animal kingdom and not separated from it. And we still aren’t there yet. There are still far too many people who… I don’t know if they really believe animals don’t have feelings, or they act as though they believe that. They try and kid themselves.

Why do you think we do that?

Well if you’re doing medical research using animals, if you’re hunting, it’s better, it’s easier if you think that these are just things, just objects.

So how are we going to shift that? As a young person, I do find myself feeling hopeless sometimes.

That’s why I started the Roots and Shoots program, because of that feeling in so many young people.

The best way to overcome apathy is to actually take some action, to throw yourself into making a difference.

There is a part that you actually can influence, and then you realise that all over the world, there are people just like you, doing their bit too.

I think of the world as thousands and thousands of interconnected jigsaw puzzle pieces. Everywhere there’s a problem, that little piece is black. If you look at the whole globe, it’s black! So much black! But if you imagine it as a touch screen, and you enlarge the place where you are, you can see, okay, well we can clean this street.

That’ll be something we can do. That means clean water going into the river. I’ve been on three continents where this has happened—children cleaning streams. So every time you achieve your goal, you clean up something, you reduce poverty or you decrease some suffering, then the black becomes green or blue, and so gradually—there are 150,000 active Roots and Shoots groups around the world, 136 countries—there’s more and more black changing into green. Even as more and more places become black. It’s a race, really.

It was magic when David Greybeard let me groom him. It was magic when I could play with Figan and Fifi. I think those relationships were really important in cementing my love and my determination to carry on.
Jane Goodall

Will we win it?

We have to. We have to. But we won’t if young people like you lose hope. If you lose hope, you’ll do nothing. You’re apathetic.

I think Al Gore said, “Between denial and despair, there is action.” Looking at the whole world can often create despair, but when you at your small piece and what you can do to change it, you are empowered.

Yes! We’re getting more and more adult groups now. So if you realise that you make a difference every day through your choices, how you live, what you buy, particularly what you buy: Where did it come from? Did it involve cruelty to animals? Did it harm the environment? Was there child slave labour? Why is it so cheap? Should you get something that’s a bit more expensive knowing that it was made in a more ethically acceptable way? Do you need to buy this particular thing? Maybe you don’t.

And you have grandchildren. How do you impart this to them? Do you find that they’re making ethical decisions?

They live in Tanzania, so they’re not completely bombarded with this materialistic consumer society. They’re living actually, quite simple lives. Although nature’s been pretty well destroyed in Dar es Salaam.

How does it feel to watch the place you knew so well become devastated? I know you’re hopeful, but it must make you deeply sad…

Of course it does. We’ve seen development all over the world. That’s why you have to work even harder, so that the children will grow up and think about the planet differently. We have to change attitudes.

We don’t have the luxury of a planet with infinite natural resources. We’ll finish. And a life that’s based on continued economic development on a planet with finite natural resources is stupid, it doesn’t make sense.

We have to change that attitude. Listen to Gandhi who said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

Thinking about greed, what did you learn about us as human beings through the chimps?

I learned about the importance of being a good mother, what a difference that makes with a young chimp. You have to be protective but not over-protective. You have to be affectionate, playful, you have to impose discipline. And above all, you have to be supportive. I had that same kind of mother, very lucky. I think it’s just as important for our own children. The offspring of the good mothers are more assertive, they play a more important role in their society. The males of good mothers get higher up in the hierarchy and probably have more offspring as a result.

So when your mother put her hand up to come with you to live in Africa, what was that like? You were in your twenties, it was the 60s, I imagine that your peers might have been doing other things…

Ooh yeah, they were. Most girls were really interested in becoming airhostesses; it was the big thing in those days. You had to be super-qualified to be an airhostess in the early days; you had to know something about nursing, medicine, speak several languages. You had to be beautiful [laughs] all those things.

And was that ever an option for you? You ticked the beautiful box!

My friends said, “You could be an air hostess.” But I didn’t want to be. I remember my mother saying, “They’re just glorified waitresses.” [Laughs] which is true.

Leaving for Africa at that time, as a woman, was quite a radical thing to do—did you feel supported?

Well my family supported me and that’s all that mattered. Family and close friends.

And what about later, once you had been living in Gombe? I read that your son, Grub, was actually quite afraid of the chimps.

Yeah, quite right. You know, with reason.

And did that change for him?

He still doesn’t like them.

What was that like? This was your passion.

Well, his passion was the sea.

You can’t change your child. I was totally happy for him. I hoped he’d do marine biology. Of course then, he wanted to export live crabs from deepsea fishing. I didn’t like that at all, and he knew I didn’t like it.

That sounds completely at odds with what you were doing.

It was. So we didn’t have a good relationship at that time. And then after he had children, he changed. He actually admitted on camera, “My Mum was right.” He never said it to me! Now, he’s designing and building the most amazing boats in my garden. He taught himself from the internet. He’s now had two ambulance boats ordered by the Tanzanian government. He’s got a boat that takes 80 passengers back and forth to the island. He’s got orders for about 50 fishing boats, which saves the last of the tropical hardwoods. So, you know, in his way, he’s doing a lot for the environment. Behind the scenes, he was working against prawn farms, which are so damaging.

So I guess he’s a good example of the way we can change our mindsets?

Absolutely. And you don’t change people by lecturing them and pointing fingers. You can only change people if you get into their heart, and that’s with stories.

You observed the chimps having a war, which was a surprise for you, because up until then, you’d thought that they were actually a lot kinder than we are. So if brutality is innate, what hope do we have? What is it that we should do to cultivate the best in us?

I read a story about a Native American girl who kept having this dream at night. She goes to her grandfather, the wise elder, and she says, “Grandfather, every night I have this dream. There are two wolves fighting. There’s a good wolf and a bad wolf. But I always wake up before I know who wins. Who will win?” He says, “Depends which one you feed.” It’s a very good story.

As a society, to me it seems we’re feeding the bad wolf.

As a society we are, but I’m thinking in terms of individuals. The first thing is education, so you know the bad wolf from the good wolf. Some people don’t, they don’t understand enough of what’s going on. If you know that you have a tendency to lose your temper, or you have a tendency to be unkind, you can work on it. We all do. We can all be mean and nasty and horrible.

And what about the chimps? You describe them as brutal, but also as kind, as having a capacity for humour, and “awe”, which they show when they dance in front of waterfalls… Might language actually impede us from being spiritually connected to those moments?

It can! Because we label things. And once you’ve labelled it, you’ve stopped thinking about its essence. That came to me with this fly. It was the most exquisitely beautiful little creature. I was just looking at it in absolute amazement.

The sun was shining on it, it was gold and green and everything. And then I stated, “It’s a fly.” As soon as you say “it’s a fly” it demeans it somehow. That’s when I was able to take that “fly” word away, and get back to looking at it, like a child would look, with wonder.

Does that mean that in some way, beings without language might have a greater capacity for awe and connectedness?

Well it might, but I don’t know. All I know is that because we have this language and we have words, we can have a discussion. We can discuss the wonder we feel at the waterfall. I think that could have led to an early mystic religion, worship of water. The chimps, you know, probably feel the same sort of emotion, but they can’t talk about it. So it can’t go beyond this feeling they have.

And also our language gives us a responsibility, doesn’t it? To speak for them.

Yes. Human responsibility. All around the world, human rights are being negated. Just about every day in some places. Even where people have signed the bill of human rights, they’re abusing humans. So how much will rights really help? It’s respect that I want. Whether it’s humans or animals. Rights are a starting point. You can win a case in a court of law. But they won’t help animals that are being killed for bush meat. Give those animals rights, but the people who go out hunting, they’re not going to worry about that.

You do incredible work in Africa to educate people, to put them in a position where their basic needs are met, so that they then can take on responsibility.

Exactly. And it’s worked. They’ve turned around and put land aside, trees have grown back, chimps have more land.

Has there ever been a time that it hasn’t worked?

Well, there’s lots of times you feel absolutely helpless, of course.

And what do you do in those moments?

Well, there’s lots of times you feel absolutely helpless, of course.

And what do you do in those moments?

Well what I do in those moments is I say, Well this is a fight that I don’t think I can win, maybe there are other people who can do better. But I think I can make a difference here, and here, and here, it’s better to concentrate on those… Unless it’s something that’s so horrible that you have to go on battering your head against a brick wall—like medical research, and we won in the end. It took years with The National Institutes of Health, but finally, they released them. Almost all of their chimps are now in sanctuaries.

How does it feel to be 80 and to have achieved so much?

Well quite honestly… there’s so much left! [Laughs] it’s like stepping stones!

I’m listening to you and thinking, If only, when I reach 80, could I have made so much impact on the world!

Well maybe you will. We all have the potential. Not in the same way, but in your way. You know?

So who would Jane be without the chimps?

I think I would have been studying some kind of animal. When I studied hyenas—people always despised them—I found out how amazing they actually are. But I don’t think hyenas could have done for the animal kingdom as much as the chimps did. So I think it must have been meant to be.

Your personal life was so completely merged with your career. I’m wondering if you can imagine your life any other way…

No, I can’t.

People say, “What would you do differently?” Well of course I made mistakes, but you learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are quite useful.

So what’s been your biggest lesson?

Well… the banana feeding, I suppose, did change things for a while. At the time it didn’t seem to matter, because I was interested in individual behaviour. We would set bananas out for the chimps, so that they would come to the camp. That was with my first husband. He was a filmmaker and he had to get footage. They’re really hard to photograph when it’s misty and dark out in the forest. We didn’t have digital cameras back in those days, so it was lugging around a 16 millimetre heavy Bolex.

Using bananas, he was able to get those scenes that captivated people’s hearts. We couldn’t have done the study without that footage. The money would have come to an end. So in a way, it was a mistake to interact with the chimps; it would have been better if we hadn’t influenced them at all. But on the other hand, it was a kind of experiment.

It’s interesting because while that may have not been the best thing for those individual chimps, those images gave people the capacity to care about the species as a whole.

Yes. It’s like a good zoo now.

So it was worth it?

Yes, it was. But you know, there’s nothing really, when I look back, that perhaps shouldn’t have been. Not really. I mean, I wish that I hadn’t got divorced from my first husband. I don’t think it was good for our son Grub. On the other hand, we were fighting so much that it might have been much worse for him if we hadn’t.

And what about you? What about your happiness?

Well that was less important than my son’s!

And less important than the chimps’?

I don’t know. I don’t think of myself in terms like that.

Sometimes people think I’ve made huge sacrifices, I haven’t really.

I suppose this awful travelling round and round, which I truly hate, I suppose you could say that’s a sacrifice. I’d much rather be out in the forest… But right now, that wouldn’t work because I know I’m supposed to be doing what I do. If the time comes when I can’t travel, which it will, providing my mind stays okay, then I’ll have time to write books. I want to write more books, but I got out most of the stuff.

This last book, it started off being a very simple idea to just talk about plants rescued from extinction. It ended up to be this amazing journey through the kingdom of the plants and learning wondrous things about communication between trees and plants and how we use and abuse plants.

Plants and animals too. I notice you have a new toy with you. I’ve seen Mr H, but—

Cow was given to me in Wisconsin, which is the dairy state, just as a little joke, with a little jacket saying “Wisconson loves you” or something silly like that. I was about to give Cow to a child and I thought, No, Cow is going to be my spokesperson for the abused farm animals. 

You know, the more I think about this, it’s not just the cruelty to the animals. It’s horrible, unbelievable, which is why I stopped eating meat. But it’s the chopping down of forest to grow the grain, it’s the millions of cattle and goats and sheep destroying the environment. It’s more and more people who want to eat more and more meat. And they want cheap meat, so it’s produced in the cheapest way, which imposes all the suffering. So there’s that, and the misuse of antibiotics, so that the bacteria build up resistance. The headline in the paper when I left England was: “The era of the antibiotic is over.” Scary. One of the main causes of this escape of antibodies into the environment is this factory farming. And even if people say, “Alright, I won’t eat meat two days a week,” or “I’ll eat much less,” or “I will buy ethically produced meat”—it’s a start.

But you feel so much better. That’s the great thing! We have the gut of a herbivore. This particular section of the gut in a herbivore is long because we’ve got to get the last goodness out of all these bits of leaf and grass. In a carnivore, that same piece is short, because they’ve got to get rid of the meat quickly before it starts rotting. So we’re eating lots of meat and putting it in a herbivore gut.

I didn’t know that. That’s amazing.

Yes. [Laughs] I discovered that when I was writing Harvest for Hope. So anyway, when we went to Argentina, Cow was shivering with fear. But 10 people became vegetarians in five days. Even in Argentina.

I want to come back to the way you spoke about happiness before… it sounds like it hasn’t been the goal for you. I think that’s so profound in a time where people are chasing it.

No it hasn’t. But I don’t know. I’m just me. I’m not taking any credit for how I am. It’s just the way I am!

Do you really think that?


You don’t change people by lecturing them and pointing fingers. You can only change people if you get into their heart, and that’s with stories.
Jane Goodall

Don’t you think you’ve cultivated who you are?

Well I suppose, you know, there’s that biblical saying, “He girded his loins.” No doubt, I do sometimes feel I’m girding my loins [laughs].

When I was about 13, I gave my grandmother a Christmas present; we called it “the Bible box.” It was six little matchboxes stuck together, the kind with the little drawers, you know? Her husband was a minister. I never met him. He died sadly, of cancer. She wasn’t particularly religious, but she would go to church sometimes. She had this Bible box—they were such platitudes, quotations from the Bible, soothing, gooey stuff. So I read the entire Bible. Every chapter. I pulled out all the little texts, you know: “He who behaves like this shall roast in the fires of Hell!” [laughs]. I wrote them really neatly on bits of paper, two or three lines which had to fit in the matchbox, with the chapter and verse on the back. All six boxes were filled.

At the end of my three-week vacation, when I have to pack up and go off again, after being three weeks in one place—I hate it, awful feeling, I think, I can’t do this, I want to stay here, want to walk the dog, want to write! But twice, my sister Judy ot out the box, as I was on my way out, groaning and moaning. We always put the things back in a different place so that it’s completely random. But both times I pulled out the same thing. And it says: “He who has once set his hand to the plough share and turns back is not fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.” Twice!

Use your power

Livia Albeck-Ripka

Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist in NYC. She has had bylines at The Atlantic, Quartz, VICE, Haaretz, Tablet & others. Livia is a former fellow at Fabrica & previous Deputy Editor at Dumbo Feather, covering culture, identity, politics & environment.

Photography by Leah Robertson and Hamed Uood

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