Editor’s Note: In 2021, Jane Goodall won the Templeton Prize, which “celebrates individuals who harness the power of science to answer questions about the universe and humanity’s purpose,” recognizing the primatologist’s incredible contributions to our understanding of animal intelligence — and to humanity itself.
The world has been fascinated with Jane Goodall for nearly 50 years, whether through her books, which detail profound discoveries linking primates to humans, or through television shows like “Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees,” which basically made her an international reality star in 1965.
Jane Goodall has been my hero since I was a child, so I jumped at the chance to interview her in 2012. We spoke by phone from her childhood home in Balmouth, England. She lives there the few weeks out of the year when she’s not traveling or visiting the Gombe Stream Reserve, where she began researching chimpanzees in 1960. Jane Goodall’s opinions about environmentalism, idealism and parenting informed, surprised and inspired me.
“I see so many parents upset when the child spills his milk and wants to make patterns with it on the table. He’s not doing something wrong, it’s important investigation and exploration.” Mommy Greenest: My children loved the Chimpanzee movie, but for them, unfortunately, chimpanzees are associated with a zoo. How do you talk with children about the importance of this program?
Jane Goodall: What I tell children is that where we have our sanctuary, in the Congo, is one of the last great forests left in Africa. And the chimpanzees are going there very quickly because the trees are being cut down by logging, the animals are shot for food and the baby chimps are [illegally] sold in the marketplace. Chimps can live to be 70 years-old. They’re more like us than any other animal on the planet. And they arrive sick and often wounded; they have to be nursed and bottle fed and gradually introduced to groups. We have 150 of them. Your children can visit JaneGoodall.org, where there are pictures and everything; they can become chimpanzee guardians, which will really help us.
Last year, I read your biography, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, and what amazed me is how you continued to lead a very physically challenging life in the wilds of Tanzania, even through pregnancy and when your son was young. I can barely get my three kids off to school! Did you ever just want to go home, where life would be easier?
No. I never wanted to go home. It was incredible having a child in Africa. He had so much freedom—he didn’t have to wear clothes half the time. He was learning about animals and nature and getting resistant to diseases. He learned to swim before he could walk. He learned to respect wild animals. His first words were “lion out there eat me.” He strung them together in a sentence!
That’s amazing. As a blogger, I’m part of a community that’s always accessible through my phone or computer for parenting questions. When your son Hugo was young, it seems like the closest community was that of the chimps. Did you learn anything about parenting from them?
I learned a lot. I learned the importance of surrounding a small child with three or four adults who will always be there—caring and consistent—to build up an atmosphere of trust. Hopefully the mother is one of them, but not always. I think a problem now is that small children don’t know who’s going to look after them next.
I learned the importance of contact, affection and play. Reassurance. And the importance of distracting rather than punishing when the infant is too small to understand, and then gradually teaching rules. That was the great thing about being out in the wild, he could spill his food—it didn’t matter because it was the forest floor. I see so many parents upset when the child spills his milk and wants to make patterns with it on the table. He’s not doing something wrong, it’s important investigation and exploration.
“Chimpanzee” opens with a quote from Walter Elias Disney, “Our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children.” It seems like this informs your “Roots & Shoots” program as well. Can you share your vision for the program?
I met so many young people as I traveled who seemed not to have hope for the future. They were depressed, angry and apathetic. “Roots & Shoots” [encourages participants to understand that] every single one of us makes a difference every single day. We can’t live through a day without making an impact. And we all have a choice.
In Roots & Shoots, each group chooses three times of projects that relate to animals, people and the environment we all share. We now have 16,000 active groups in 131 countries—from preschool to university. These young people are linked around the world so we have partnerships in understanding and communication.
Tell your children to visit RootsandShoots.org. They need to be part of our growing family. Tell them from me. It’s what gives me my hope for the future to see the change that happens once these young people are empowered.
Here is a question from my daughter, Julia: “When did you know you wanted to study chimpanzees?”
Tell Julia that when I was a tiny girl, I always wanted to watch animals. When I was 10 or 11, I knew I wanted to live in Africa and write books about animals. But it wasn’t until I saved up money and went to Africa without a degree that I met Louis Leakey and he suggested that I study chimpanzees. He thought they were the most amazing animals to study that you could possibly imagine. You have to decide what you want to do and then never give up. She may not know [now], but when she does know she should follow her heart and never give up—follow her dream.
I might not tell her about the no degree part.
Yes, that’s not so easy these days! But it was after the war, we couldn’t afford it—we didn’t have enough money. I did [eventually receive] my PhD. But one more thing, for your children, My Life with the Chimpanzees, that’s the book for them. That’s written for her age.
Thank you, Dr. Goodall. You’re my hero.
I actually didn’t say that last bit. But I should have.