National Geographic’s new documentary, Jane Goodall: The Hope, airing tonight at 9/8c, follows the current exploits of one of the world’s most beloved figures, the animal expert and humanitarian Dr. Jane Goodall. Made famous through her studies of chimpanzees, Goodall now spearheads programs for children across the world to learn about and better understand the world around them. We caught up with Goodall at home in the U.K. to ask about her illustrious life and what she hopes she will be remembered for.
Where did your love of animals come from?
I was born with it. It didn’t come from anywhere; it came in my package. There was no passionate animal lover in my family at all. It was just me and a very supportive mother who didn’t get angry when she found worms in my bed when I was 1 and a half [years old]. That sort of thing.
Your mother had to accompany you when you first began your studies. What was that like?
Well, Louis Leakey managed to get the money for me to do six months, but then the second problem was the British authorities in Tanzania — which was Tanganyika back then, part of the crumbling British empire — absolutely refused for me to go alone, so the person who volunteered to come was Mum. … She organized the clinic, which really started my super relationship with all of the local people from miles around. She wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, but she had simple aspirins and bandages and Epsom salts and things like that.
When you first started studying the chimps in the ’60s, technology was a lot different. How would you communicate your findings from the field?
Pen and ink written on sheet. That’s all I had, a pair of old binoculars and the tiny notebooks I took in the field, and I transcribed them with a hurricane lamp in the evening.
What’s a time you remember when you were the most scared?
Well, it wasn’t very nice when I got a message from one of my helpers. He came up to find me in the mountains, and he said that 20 young men from the nearby village had come and cut down all the trees all around my tent — they wanted me to go away. They felt that I was taking land away from them, which wasn’t true; it was already a game reserve. They expected to find me in the camp because it was 6 in the morning, but I used to leave at 5:30 to be up there when it was light.
What do you most want to be remembered for?
When I got to Cambridge in 1961, I was told by the professors that I shouldn’t have given the chimps names. They should have had numbers that were scientific, and I couldn’t talk about personality, mind or emotions because those were unique to [humans]. But I’d already learned as a child, [when] I had a wonderful teacher who taught me that that absolutely wasn’t true, and that was my dog. Of course, you can’t share your life with an animal and not know that we’re not the only being on the planet with personality, mind and emotion. … Gradually science was forced to think in a less reductionist way. And today students can study personality, mind and emotion. So I think that was a major accomplishment, and the fact that I’m obstinate and wouldn’t give in to the accepted norm. And the other [accomplishment] has been starting our youth program, Roots & Shoots.
Can you explain a little more about Roots & Shoots?
It began in 1991 because I was finding, as I traveled around the world, [that] there were so many young people who didn’t seem to have much hope for the future, and all around the world they told me that we’d compromised their future and there was nothing they could do about it. We’re still stealing it today, the way we’re damaging the environment, climate change and all the rest of it. But I didn’t agree there was nothing they could do. So Roots & Shoots began with 12 secondary school students in Tanzania and the main message [is] every single one of us makes some impact on the planet every single day. So that program is now in 65 countries around the world. … There will always be some who want to help animals, some who want to help people, some who want to help the environment. And they get together, they discuss it, they work out what they can do, then they roll up their sleeves and go and take action. It’s all about taking action.