Primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall

The renowned primatologist previews the new documentary Jane, featuring never-before-seen footage from her groundbreaking study.

Born in London in 1934, Dr. Jane Goodall’s love for animals started as a child after her father gave her a toy chimpanzee which she named Jubilee.

She found her way to Africa, the continent that made her famous, in 1957 on a friend’s invitation and eventually met anthropologist and palaeontologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who hired her as his assistant.

Dr. Goodall founded her institute for wildlife research, education and conservation in 1977 after connecting climate change with the destruction of chimpanzee habitats. She later set up Roots & Shoots to encourage young leaders to work on behalf of people, animals, and the environment.

She still travels an average of 300 days per year, speaking to new generations around the world about the threats facing chimpanzees, and “urges her audiences to recognize their personal power and responsibility to effect positive change through consumer action, lifestyle change and activism”.

Like Dr. Jane Goodall on Facebook.

Follow @JaneGoodallInst on Twitter.


[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Tavis: I am pleased, delighted and honored to have Dr. Jane Goodall on this program. She is the focus of a new documentary in theaters this weekend. It’s called “Jane”. The project is directed by award-winning director, Brett Morgen, and set to a rich orchestral score from legendary composer, Philip Glass. Before we start our conversation with Dr. Goodall, here now a scene from “Jane”.


Tavis: This documentary is so wonderful and so powerful. In the story, it tells about the family of these animals, but I want to start our conversation, if I might, by asking about your family. Tell me about your mom and tell me about your dad. I want to get this back story straight.

Dr. Jane Goodall: Okay. Well, my father, I didn’t really know very well because, when World War II broke out, he immediately the army and my parents separated during the war, before the end of the war. But my mother was amazing. I attribute the way she raised me to helping me do what I’ve done.

For example, when I was born, I loved animals apparently from the very beginning. And when I took earthworms to bed with me, she came into my room and said, “Jane, it looked as though you were wondering how do they walk without legs.”

Instead of getting mad at me with all this mucky earth, she just said, “They need the earth or they’ll die.” So we took them back into the garden. She found books for me about animals. She thought I’d learn to read more quickly.

When I was 10, I discovered “Tarzan of the Apes”. Not the movies because there was no TV back then, but the little book. I just had saved up enough of my pocket money to buy it. I fell in love with this glorious lord of the jungle and he married the wrong Jane, didn’t he?

Tavis: Mm-hmm [laugh].

Goodall: So anyway, well, he did, right?

Tavis: Yes, absolutely.

Goodall: So anyway, I decided then I’m going to grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals, and write books about them. Everybody laughed. “How will you get there? You don’t have any money. There’s a war and you’re just a girl.” But not my mother. She said, “If you really want this, you’re going to have to work really hard, take advantage of every opportunity, but don’t give up.”

Tavis: Since you underscored the point that others were telling you that you were just a girl, how much patriarchy, how much sexism have you had to push back on to distinguish yourself and your work?

Goodall: You know, I really haven’t. Okay, when I first emerged with information about the chimps, there were a lot of people who said, “Well, you can’t believe her.” I hadn’t even been to college, you know. Yes, “I was just a geographic cover girl” and things like that. But as I had never wanted to be a scientist and as the world actually know men really doing what I was doing, I was carving my own path into a new sort of career.

Okay, George Schaller watched the gorillas. So as I go on, Hugo van Lawick came. It’s his film that we just watched. You know, he substantiated what I had seen, so the scientific community had to accept what I was talking about because it was proved.

Tavis: There’s a funny story that I read about when you were a child disappearing for hours and your family couldn’t find you in the chicken coop. It’s a funny story. Please tell this.

Goodall: Well, it’s a great story. Actually, there’s a real point to it because we’d gone for holiday on a farm, just Mom and me. We lived in London. Not many animals there. So cows, pigs, horses, no cruel factory farms. It was magic.

And then I was given a job to help collect the hens’ eggs. So they went in to lay their eggs in these little wooden henhouses. I think there were about six of them. Apparently, I began asking everybody — I was four and a half. Where does the egg come out? I couldn’t see a hole like that [laugh].

Nobody told me, so what I do remember is seeing this hen. She was brown and she was going into one of these henhouses and I must have thought, “Ah, she’s going to lay an egg.” So I crawled after her. Mistake. Squawks of fear, she flew out.

Again, I must have thought this is an unsafe place. I went into an empty henhouse and waited and waited and waited, and the family didn’t know where I was. They even called the police. I was gone more than four hours and yet when my mother saw this little girl rushing excitedly towards the house, instead of getting mad at me, she sat down to hear this wonderful story.

So if you look back on that, isn’t that the making of a little scientist? Of curiosity, asking questions, not getting the right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake, not giving up and learning patience? It was all there and a different kind of mother might have crushed it.

Tavis: To your mother, who I’m fascinated by, and that’s why I started this conversation by asking about your parents, what did you learn from your mother? What did you take from the way that your mother parented you into your own work that allowed you to be patient with these animals? Is there a connection here?

Goodall: Well, I think the only real connection is that she encouraged me when I was a child. I spent hours outside and I watched the birds and I watched all sorts of animals. I can remember watching jumping spiders and spiders carrying their little egg things and watching birds, waiting for them to hatch babies. When I finally was invited to Africa, I had to work to save up money.

I worked as a waitress around the corner, got to Africa, heard about Louis Leakey. He’s the one who gave me the opportunity to study the chimps. But at that time, Tanzania was Tanganyika. It was the crumbling remains of the British Empire. And the British authorities said, “A young girl on her own in the forest? Absolutely not.”

But in the end, they said, “Well, if she brings a companion.” So it was my mother who volunteered to come. She left England. She left her safe life and she came with me to share an old ex-army tent.

I was up in the hills every day. That was my world, my dream. Left her down with spiders, snakes, scorpions, a cook who discovered a very alcoholic brew made out of fermented bananas. The baboons were raiding the tent to try and steal food. She was amazing, wasn’t she?

Tavis: Yes, she was, yeah.

Goodall: And I was so lucky, and it was really sad. She left just before I saw that tool-using.

Tavis: I was about to ask you when she left, and you just answered that. How far into your work did your mother live to see?

Goodall: Oh, she lived out until 2000, so she saw it all, you know, unfolding and she was there when I got my PhD and a couple of honorary degrees. One journalist said to her, “Are you proud of your daughter?” She looked at him and she said, “What would you say if I said no? [laugh].

Tavis: I like your mom even more now [laugh]. The other thing about you that’s always fascinated me in just following you over the years and learning more about your back story for this conversation and watching this documentary, you have always possessed a fearlessness, which on the one hand doesn’t surprise me because so often we see kids are fearless.

But as we grow older, that fear starts to take over. It starts to reside in us. Why did that never set in for you?

Goodall: Well, first of all, I felt I was meant to be there. And there were moments when, you know, when the chimpanzees lost their fear, they became very aggressive. So when you’re surrounded by eight large adult chimpanzees, all about 10 times stronger than me, hair bristling, looking huge, screaming at me, treating me as though I was a leopard, trying to hit me with branches, that was scary.

But I just thought, well, if I pretend I’m not interested, I dug little holes in the ground, I felt they’ll probably go away, and they did. So gradually they lost that aggressiveness and accepted me.

Do you know the interesting thing? The only time when I really felt fear of any animal was after I had my own baby. And if an animal approached, like when I was on the Serengeti and we were in the VW, an elephant came really close.

Before him, I would have been so thrilled. Now I have this little baby and it was an irrational fear. But the change, which I find fascinating, it helped me understand why chimp mothers behaved the way they did sometimes.

Tavis: Tell me about your son because at one point you sent him to live with your mother, if I get this correct…

Goodall: Yeah, when he had to go to school.

Tavis: Had to go to school, yeah. How did you feel about that separation? Did it bring anxiety?

Goodall: Oh, it was horrible. It was really nasty. I mean, up until he was three, I wasn’t away from him for a single night, not at all. Then, you know, occasionally, but every holidays, we were together and Mom was part of the family and she’d been out to Africa. So it wasn’t as bad as if some people just send their children off to boarding school. It wasn’t like that. He was living in my home.

Tavis: I read somewhere where I want to say it’s about 1985 or 86, you made a commitment to yourself that you would never stay anywhere more than three weeks at a time. Is that still your policy?

Goodall: It wasn’t my commitment. My commitment was that I had to leave Gombe and try and raise awareness about the plight of chimps, the vanishing rainforests, the plight of the African people, the needing to lift them out of poverty if you want to try and save the environment.

So I began traveling around raising awareness and learning about what was going on in Africa, and going into the medical research labs where our closest relatives were in five foot by five foot cages alone. That involved me traveling and it turned out that it was not allowing me to be more than three weeks consecutively anywhere. It wasn’t a plan to do that.

Tavis: Just happened that way.

Goodall: It was a plan — you know, I went to this conference. I learned about what was happening and went as a scientist. By then, I had my PhD and I left as an activist. I mean, it wasn’t a decision. It just happened like a switch in my brain.

Tavis: I’m curious, though. What have you most learned then? Even though it wasn’t a commitment, what have you most learned by being on the move in the way that you have been?

Goodall: That I have a jolly good constitution, which is something inherited from my father [laugh]. But I’ve also learned that I have been given a gift, which is communication, and it’s writing books and speaking, speaking to large audiences and finding, to my amazement at the beginning, they listened. And that I found that, although I was terrified, my first talk was actually the Geographic in Washington in Constitution Hall…

Tavis: Nice facility, yeah.

Goodall: It was my first public talk. I was absolutely terrified.

Tavis: Yeah, I can see why.

Goodall: But I found I could do it. So words come and sometimes I watch myself, you know, recording and I think how does she do it? It’s strange.

Tavis: Why is it — I hope this is not a loaded question. But why is it that we humans find animals writ large so fascinating to watch, to study? What is it about animals that just…

Goodall: I think it takes us back to a time before all this industrialization, a time when we actually lived out in the forest and when animals were a very important part of our lives. You know, the hunter-gatherers, the indigenous people, they and animals, they lived together.

It’s the same in the eastern religions. We’re part of nature, so think this fascination with animals is taking us back in a way. And also, sometimes distrust of other humans. Dogs, for example, unconditional love.

Tavis: There are two questions that Ii want to ask right now because of your last statement. Let me ask them in this order. When you said a moment ago that it takes us back, how taken aback were you when you saw this documentary when some of these photos have been unearthed, that haven’t been seen for 50 years? How did you process seeing all of this come to life in this documentary?

Goodall: When I first heard about it, I felt that’s nothing new, that they’ve used this footage before, same footage taken by Hugo that was in the early Geographic documentaries. But when I saw it, I think Brett Morgen has done an amazing job.

So it makes me feel I’m there as no other documentary about me has done. So I’m feeling what it was like to be out in the forest, those early days, the best days of my life. So it was very moving. Then, you know, my life unraveling and shots of me and my baby and Hugo. It was just special.

Tavis: The second thing I want to come back to, Dr. Goodall, is you used the term — you referenced dogs a moment ago. I want to ask something that’s a bit politically incorrect and you’ve had these conversations…

Goodall: I like those [laugh].

Tavis: You like those. Okay, well, good. You’ll like this one then [laugh]. We’ve had this conversation ad nauseum, ad infinitum, in this country and I want to get your take on this because I think there’s something to it.

There are some people in this country — certainly this is the sentiment of not all, but certainly many people of color, certainly African Americans, my own people — who find it sometimes annoying is the nicest word I can use when it appears that certain human beings care more about animals than they care about other human beings.

It’s not just a political reality. It’s a life and death reality where people will defend, they will fight for, they will protest, they will raise money for all kinds of animals, but they don’t seem to have that same love, that same respect for humanity, and particularly if humanity looks a little differently than they do. So you love politically incorrect stuff? There’s one. Take it away.

Goodall: Okay. Well, for me, you know, I already mentioned this. When I went to learn about the plight of the chimps in Africa, I learned a lot about what many African people were facing living in and around the forests of the chimps. And I flew over the little Gombe park where I did my research. It was part of a great forest. I looked down from this plane. It was a tiny island surrounded by completely bare hills.

More people living there than the land could support, over-used infertile farmland, trees on the steep slopes cut down so those terrible erosions, streams getting silted up, people struggling to survive. And that’s when it hit me. If we don’t help these people, there’s no way we can even try to save the chimps.

So that’s when the Jane Goodall Institute began our program “Take Care”, TACARE, to help the people, not a bunch of arrogant white people marching into a village and saying, “Oh, you’ve made a mess, so this is what we’re going to do”, no.

A team of Tanzanians, they didn’t even have PhD between them, but they’d been working in NGOs and forestry education, health. They asked the people in the villages around Gombe, “What can we do to help you? What would you like us to do?”

And that’s where we began, and then we could introduce water management programs. Then we could introduce microcredit for women and scholarships to keep girls in school, family planning, and it’s been so successful. We’re now in 52 villages and in six other African countries. So we don’t separate. We help people and chimpanzees.

Our youth program, Roots and Shoots, isn’t just an environmental program for young people from preschool through university. It’s a program where the young people themselves decide together on three projects. One to help people, one to help animals, one to help the environment we all share.

And it’s a funny thing. There’s an awful lot of people on this planet and it’s lucky that there are some people who want to help people and some people who want to help animals. You started off and, if there was time, or maybe I can tell you very quickly, the first place I set foot on African soil back in 1957 was Cape Town and it was beautiful.

But then we had two days onshore from the ship and I went into a park and they took me into a hotel. And on all these seats and the doors of the restroom were some “Africans” and I said, “What does this mean? It’s everywhere.” White people only. I was shocked. I hadn’t been brought up like that.

I don’t know if Nelson Mandela was already in Robben Island Prison, but I wanted to leave. I couldn’t understand it. You know, my earliest memories after the end of World War II with the bodies, corpses, skeletons coming out of the concentration camps, the death camps, so I’ve learned from the beginning the dark side of human nature.

And the chimpanzees also have a dark side, but we have so much love and goodness and compassion and there are so many people fighting to make things better in this planet. So I’m trying to concentrate on all the good things going on, wonderful people, the great projects, and share those. Because if people lose hope, we may as well give up.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Goodall: And there’s so much doom and gloom. We need to have some shining lights to keep us going. So we go on fighting for what’s right.

Tavis: Well, you are one of those shining lights, to be sure. As I sit and listen to you now, there are two questions that come to mind. One is, of all the things that you have done and, obviously, full of energy at this age and still doing it — this may be an unfair question.

Is there something amongst all of that work and witness that brings you the greatest joy? And the flip side of that is, after all the years of doing what you have done so beautifully and so well, what still vexes your spirit the most?

Goodall: Well, what brings me the most joy is two things really. One is being by myself out in nature, preferably a forest, but nature. Just to feel part of the great scheme of things. I have this sense of a great spiritual power and it gives me strength. The other thing is being with my friends, having a glass of wine or a little tot of whiskey which actually is really good for the voice, by the way [laugh]…

Tavis: Thanks for telling me. That’s what I’ve been missing out on, okay [laugh].

Goodall: Yeah, you have. You know, at the end of the day and just relaxing and talking and sort of, yes, you get gloomy, but then you bring it all up again. The other question, I think what gives me the most angst is there’s still so much cruelty. I remember at the end of World War II after the holocaust, we said “Never again”, but it’s happened again and again. That’s why I’m so passionate about our youth program.

Aiming for a critical mass of young people who understand that we need to break down the barriers between people of different nations, cultures, religions, and between us and the natural world and who understand that life shouldn’t be just about making money, just about attaining power. It should be about family, friends, having enough to live on, but not so — we need money to live, but we shouldn’t live for money.

Tavis: Are you hopeful in the young people that you see in Africa and around the world that that dream is possible?

Goodall: Yeah, it is. The young people are my greatest reason for hope. You know, a very sweep of hope. But the young people, what they’re doing right now in 100 countries, that the 150,000 groups of all ages choosing.

We’re listening to them. They’re empowered, they’re taking action, they know they’re going to make a difference and they know they are making a difference. Every single day, every single one of us makes some kind of impact and we can choose what kind of impact we’re going to make.

Tavis: That’s quite a legacy, yeah. I could do this for hours, if only I had the time and if only she had the time. Fortunately for you, you get a chance to go to the theaters starting October 20 and to watch a documentary about her life and legacy ongoing. It’s simply called “Jane”.

It is a powerful piece of work and beautifully done, beautifully shot. It’s arresting to watch this documentary. Again, I am honored to have had this time with you. Thank you, Dr. Goodall.

Goodall: Well, I’m honored too. Thank you.

Tavis: The pleasure is mine. Thank you so much. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

[Walmart Sponsor Ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 20, 2017 at 3:40 pm