As of two weeks ago, Jane Goodall had not seen Netflix’s Tiger King. But after decades of being a fierce advocate for the welfare of wild animals, she has heard of it, and she has an opinion about it.
“When people interact with adult big cats,” she says, “there have been some pretty gory maulings by the big cats. And the same with chimpanzees. People get cute babies, and they grow up into potentially dangerous wild animals. There have been some horrific cases of that. So you know, the message is that responsible captive breeding in zoos is the best possible environment for wild animals, run by people who know what they need. When it’s done right—in conjunction with protecting the habitat in the world, enlarging it. The best zoos now are giving a lot of money to conservation efforts in the countries where the animals come from.”
This is just one of many opinions she shared with Paste Magazine in a recent interview tied to the release of two different documentaries: NatGeo’s Jane Goodall: The Hope and the BBC America series She Walks With Apes. Both projects take different angles on Goodall’s life story, but both capture her passion for advocacy even against the bleakest of odds. And as she reveals below, even something like a pandemic won’t keep her from the fight.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Paste: So a friend of mine has a six-year-old daughter named Clara, and when I mentioned that I would be talking to you, she had a question: What was the first animal you ever saved?
Jane Goodall: The first animal I think the first animals I ever saved were worms. I used to take them off the pavement when I was two years old and put them back in the garden.
I was born loving animals. I watched them from the age of one and a half. And when I saved up to go to Africa, I would have studied any animal. The fact that it was chimpanzees, is not… Many people think that because I got that toy chimpanzee when I was one and a half. But nobody knew anything about chimps. I wouldn’t have thought of studying anything as exotic. It was because I met Louis Leakey, and he wanted somebody to study chimpanzees. That’s how it happened—when people say, after chimps, what’s your favorite animal? My favorite animal is not a chimpanzee. They’re too like humans. My favorite animal is a dog.
Paste: Dogs are wonderful. Do you have a dog now?
Goodall: Well, I can’t, can I, with my life of travel. But I’m at home in England, the house I grew up in. My sister came to live here, thank goodness, with our family. And there’s always a dog with two dogs or sometimes three dogs. Right now, it’s just one.
Paste: How are you handling everything, in terms of what’s going on with coronavirus?
Goodall: Well, by working very hard to keep up the momentum and do everything, you know, through social media, podcasts, and all the rest of it. Doing lots of videos for people—cheering them on.
Paste: In the NatGeo documentary, you talk about how you know how much traveling you’ve had to do over the years. Is it a relief to take a bit of a break from that?
Goodall: Well, it’s not very good, actually. I mean, yes, I can reach loads of people. But I know it’s not the same as being there. Everybody says, “Jane, when you’re here it’s completely different. Yes, we watch your videos. But having you live is a totally different feeling.” I mean, in the room when you’re with, like, 8000 people, doing a talk to them—it’s a very, very different feeling to gazing at a computer screen, and giving a talk.
Paste: Do you have a sense of when there was a turning point for you, when your life shifted from research to advocacy?
Goodall: Yes, absolutely. It was a conference that I helped to start up to organize in 1986. And by that time, there was six other field sites of studying chimps in Africa. First, it was just me, and by ’86 there were seven field sites, including Gombe. And the idea was to see how chimp behavior might differ according to different environments, whether cultural learning played a role, which it does, actually. But we also had a session on conservation that was utterly shocking, seeing how forests was going so fast and chimpanzee numbers were dropping because of bushmeat and the live animal trade and loss of habitat. And we also had a session on conditions in some captive situations, the worst of which was in medical research, where our closest relatives were maybe spending 30 years in five-foot-by-five-foot cages alone. I went to the conference as a scientist, I had my Ph.D by then. But I left knowing that I have to try and do something to help. I was a different person when I left that conference. The research is carrying on without me.
Paste: Do you miss the research aspect of your work?
Goodall: No, because it’s all so different now. Gombe is different. All the chimps I used to know, the only one left alive now is Gremlin. The young ones who’ve grown up, I don’t recognize them. And I get to hear what’s going on. We’ve got wonderful researchers out there field staff and Tanzanians that have been with us forever. So, you know, I get to hear what’s happening, and I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing.
Paste: When it comes to being the subject of a documentary like this, how conscious are you of the cameras?
Goodall: So, I more or less can ignore them. Well, I try to ignore them, I mean, I know that it’s an important part to get the message out to people. So I know that it’s a good thing to do. And I just try and get on with this as best as I can.
Paste: Do you feel like you’re a different person when the cameras are off?
Goodall: No, no, no.
Paste: The NatGeo documentary is subtitled “The Hope”—what are you finding inspiring, or helpful, right now?
Goodall: Well, we all look for a silver lining in the darkest of times, and we are going through very, very dark times right now, even before the COVID-19 pandemic—even before, there was the climate crisis, the destruction of the environment, growing human population, and unsustainable lifestyles. It’s all pretty grim and then, with the coronavirus on top of it, which in a way is saying how quickly nature recovers when we stopped polluting the environment. But at least for now, the Chinese government has reacted by closing down all markets for wild animal meat, which is how the virus began. And the hope is that they will make that permanent and extend it to cover wild animals used for traditional Chinese medicine. That’s the hope.
Paste: Are there any other silver linings that you’re seeing?
Goodall: Well, look at pictures from the satellites of the pollution before and after, in China. The skies are clean. I mean, nature’s having a chance to breathe. And that’s happening in other cities too. So hopefully enough people will realize, gosh, this is wonderful. We do not want that pollution to come back. And maybe this will pressure governments to make the necessary legislation to control the emissions from fossil fuels and put more money into alternative energy.
A lot of people have grown up in this awful pollution. They don’t know. You know, I’m 86 tomorrow, actually. I remember exactly what it was like when those skies were clear. But I also remember before that, in London, for example, when I first went and had a job in London. And that was in 1955 we had the smokes, because it was all coal burning. And oh, they were really thick smokes. And then legislation was passed and that stopped, the reckless burning of coal stopped and some legislation was put in place, and London became relatively clean. And now it’s become dirty again. Because of more traffic. So I’ve seen it go up and come down and so on.
Paste: I feel like the one aspect of the pandemic is that I’m worried we’re going to lose sight of these other issues that were feeling very important just a few months ago.
Goodall: I’m doing a film with Jeff Horowitz—we are hoping to do a documentary linking climate change with COVID-19, with protection of forests, linking it all together, because the destruction of the forest that brings wild animals in closer contact with humans, as they lose more and more of their home, that is another breeding ground for these viruses to spread and jump into people.
Do remember to tell people, when you write your article, that the most important message today is that every single day, each one of us lives, we make some impact on the planet, and we can choose what sort of impact we make; what we buy, what we wear, where does it come from? Did it harm the environment when it was made? Did it lead to cruelty to animals like terrible factory farms? Is it cheap because of child slave labor? If we start making ethical choices every day, millions and billions of us, we move towards a better world and a world of citizens who will push governments to make the ethical decisions themselves.
Jane Goodall: The Hope on NatGeo and BBC America’s She Walks With Apes both premiere Wednesday, April 22nd.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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