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BMZ Interview with Jane Goodall


(c) David S. Holloway

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: March 2002

World-famous scientist and conservationist Jane Goodall talks about her lifelong dedication to chimpanzees, and the new Big Movie which depicts it.


Category: Interviews

BMZ: So you've been studying Chimpanzees for some 40 years (wow!) -- was this always your life's dream? How did you get started?

JG: I had been fascinated by animals even as a very young child. One of my earliest memories is of being four years old, hiding in the henhouse and waiting for hours to see how a hen laid an egg. The whole household had been searching for me, and my mother had even called the police to report me missing. But she didn't scold me--she saw the excitement in my eyes and listened as I told her about my adventure. I was about eight when I first decided I would go to Africa and live with wild animals. My mother used to say to me, "Jane, if you really want something, and if you really work hard, if you take advantage of opportunities, and if you never give up, you will find a way." As a young woman I held a fascinating job at a documentary film studio, but the dream for Africa was still very much with me. When a friend invited me to her parents' farm in Kenya, I immediately handed in my resignation and began to save up for the trip. I got a job as a waitress and saved wages and tips until I had enough for the travel fare. Once I was in Africa, I went to see Dr. Louis Leakey at the natural history museum where he was curator. I think that he sensed my interest in animals was rooted deep. He offered me a job as secretary/assistant, and eventually suggested I begin an unusual and exciting project -- studying a group of wild chimpanzees living on the shore of a lake in Tanzania.

BMZ: What drew you in about the Chimps (and/or the work), and inspired a life-long commitment? Was this level of commitment a conscious decision at some point, or did it just evolve, over the years?

JG: The more I learned about them, the more fascinated I became. The answer to every question led to another question. Each one was so different and their life histories were different. We are still learning new things. And understanding them helps us to better understand ourselves.

BMZ: What keeps you going, after so long?

JG: First, there is still so much to learn. Secondly, the urgency of the threat facing chimpanzees and my belief that we can ultimately reverse the course of destruction. Many people don't realize that chimpanzees--and other animals such as gorillas and elephants--are endangered. We could lose them entirely if we don't act. At the turn of the last century there were 2 million chimpanzees in Africa. When I began my research in 1960 there were probably more than a million. Today we think there are, at most, 150,000 chimpanzees remaining, though the figure is probably no more than 120,000. This is depressing information; yet I have hope. Let me share my four reasons. The amazing human brain, which has created modern technology, much of which has greatly benefited millions of people around the globe. Secondly, the resiliency of nature, if given a chance. My third reason of hope lies in the tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and commitment of young people like you, all around the world. My fourth reason for hope lies in the indomitable nature of the human spirit. We saw that resilience in people after September 11. The Jane Goodall Institute is a place for young people to turn if they want to help. Our Roots & Shoots program has groups from pre-K through college, which support students in an array of exciting projects benefiting people, animals, and the environment. Many of our most recent efforts promote dialogue among young people of different cultural and religious backgrounds.

BMZ: Is there anything special that stands out in your vast knowledge of chimps, that you could only have understood after so many years working with them?

JG: The research at the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve is ongoing, and our understanding of chimpanzees is still evolving. Some of our later discoveries were initially unsettling. We learned that chimps wage war against one another, even turning against former members of their communities. But chimpanzees also demonstrate emotions that we might call caring and love. They develop strong family bonds. We observed one adolescent male "adopt" an orphan chimp who was unrelated--he allowed the infant to ride on his back or cling to his belly, shared his food, shared his nest at night, and protected the infant when he was in danger. He saved his life.

BMZ: What are the most remarkable qualities about Chimps that many people might not know?

JG: Our studies of chimpanzee behaviour show us there is no sharp line dividing humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives in the animal world. We are not, after all, the only beings with personalities, capable of rational thought, and knowing emotions similar to those we label happiness or sadness, fear and despair, and mental as well as physical suffering. This understanding leads us to a new respect for all the other amazing animals with whom we share our planet.

BMZ: How did you first discover that chimps use tools? What are some of the most surprising uses of tools you've seen over the years?

JG: The first chimp I observed using a grass stem was David Graybeard. He was inserting the stem into a termite mound and picking off with his teeth the insects who grabbed at it. Later I saw David and another chimp, Goliath, stripping leaves off the stems to make them suitable for poking into the mound. This was the first example of tool making.

We later observed the chimps chewing leaves and then using the absorbent wads as sponges with which they could soak water from tree hollows and other small pools.

Chimps use long smooth sticks to fish vicious biting army ants from their underground nests. And rocks and sticks become missiles and clubs. In different parts of Africa chimps have developed different tool-using 'cultures' -- behaviors passed from one generation to the next through observation, imitation and practice.

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