Jane Goodall, Age 86, Won’t Stop Fighting, Pandemic Be Damned
The famed primate whisperer predicted a pandemic would come, given our disrespect of nature. As she considers her age and legacy, she’s emboldened: “I’m an obstinate person.”
Dr. Jane Goodall’s six decades of conservation work have been nothing short of heroic, deifying her presence in culture in the halo of a warm, inspiring glow. But at age 86, Goodall, ever the image of serenity and grace, is maybe for the first time exhibiting somewhat of a new color. She’s starting to get a little bit beleaguered.
“Do I enjoy the life I’m leading? Actually the answer is really no. I’m traveling 300 days a year, or more, every year since 1986,” she says in the new National Geographic special Jane Goodall: The Hope, which premieres Wednesday.
The special examines the pivotal turning point in her life almost 35 years ago, when she transitioned from scientist to activist and never looked back. The effect of that: a life on the road lecturing, schmoozing for grants, monitoring sanctuaries, campaigning, and ensuring her legacy thrives by overseeing the Roots & Shoots youth conservation program across 60 countries. “I’m trying to save the world,” she says. “It’s a bit of a tough job.”
When we connect with Goodall over the phone from the home in Bournemouth, England, that she shares with her sister’s family when she’s not traveling, we imagine that the global shutdown must have been a welcome opportunity to pause and catch her breath. Not at all.
“I’m busier than I've ever been in my entire life,” she says. “By creating a ‘virtual’ Jane to keep up the momentum of my travels around the world, it’s much easier than when I’m on tour.”
“People are kinder on tour,” she sighs. “I don’t have nonstop interviews and meetings in a day, because I have to be ready for doing a big lecture at night. That’s much less exhausting, I have to say.” It’s almost evening in Britain when we talk. Perhaps a chance to rest when we’re done? “No, not at all. There’s two more interviews after my supper time.”
Quarantine or not, the world still needs to be saved. This is her calling. Those around her plead for her to slow down, wary of the toll Jane Goodall, the cause, takes on Jane Goodall, the human, as she gets older. But she won’t hear of it. “I feel that I was put on this planet with a mission and what I’m doing now is trying to fulfill that mission. I can’t give up.”
It’s been almost 60 years since Goodall first traveled to Tanzania to embed herself in the little-known world of chimpanzees. In doing so, she realized the interconnectedness between the animals, their natural habitat, and the health, education, and economic vibrancy of the human population around them. The need for conservation and rehabilitation spread across all these arenas. Equally important is the education of younger generations, so they might become stewards of her message and work.
That’s a lot of perspective to lend to this current moment of crisis. She doesn’t mince words: This is as bad as anything she’s witnessed in her 86 years. But it’s also a moment of clarity—and, yes, even hope.
“There’s no doubt that for probably millions of people, they’ve had a glimpse of how the world should be,” she says. “The skies have become clearer. Water has become cleaner. They see more wild animals. But I’m very much afraid that unless we reach a tipping point of people demanding that business and government curtail emissions, so they can go on breathing cleaner—which some of them probably have never known before—I’m really afraid, with some of the leadership we have around the world, that it’s going to be back to business as usual as soon as possible. That’s what I fear.”
The trickle-down effects of a shutdown spreads to every aspect of society. It should not be discounted or forgotten that those reverberations include the animal kingdom, presenting great challenges for conservation efforts. There are reports, for example, that poaching in parts of Africa has increased because the coronavirus has halted tourism and park staff have been laid off.
“This pandemic was predicted,” Goodall says. “It’s been known for years and years and years. It started because of our disrespect of the natural world and the animals who live there.”
Destroying the forests, she explains, crowded animals closer together, allowing viruses to jump between and across species. Animals are pushed into closer conflict with humans. Then there’s the animal trafficking and exporting. “This all creates the condition whether the viruses can crossover from animals to people.”
Put simply, there has never been a time that she can remember when things have seemed as dire as they do now.
“There’s been nothing like this, that shut everything down,” she says. “I mean, it’s sort of similar to World War II, which I remember. I grew up in it, with the shortages and the fear of never knowing where the bombs would fall, just as today we don't know where the virus will attack next. Then we were fighting a physical enemy. Now it’s an invisible enemy.”
And yet, in spite of all that, Goodall is preaching a message of hope. It’s the title of this special. It’s the spirit of this stage of her mission, particularly when she’s mentoring young people. Don’t be confrontational, she tells them. Reach for their hearts to change their hearts, and their minds will follow. But how does one have hope at a time like this, let anyone inspire others to have it, too? To begin, she stresses, remember it’s in our nature to get through things. In her lifetime, she’s seen societies recover from multiple wars. She’s seen parts of Africa make it through genocides. We got through 9/11. And, she says, we’re going to get through this.
“The hope is that we will emerge from it wiser, thinking more carefully about our relationship with the environment, trusting in our amazing intellect to help us steer us to a better way forward,” she says. “Thinking about the indomitable human spirit that doesn’t give up and goes on trying even when it seems impossible. And then thinking also, which we’re seeing happen in front of our eyes, the resilience of nature. Give it a chance, and it will reassert itself.”
Beyond staring down the bleakness of the immediate moment, there is something more broadly radical about speaking from a perspective of hope and optimism in a period of time when the discourse around the world has been defined by hate, exclusion, blame, and fear-mongering.
“It’s an amazing coincidence that a film with this name comes out right now,” she says. “You know, I've come to realize through my life, there aren't really coincidences. There are opportunities which you either take or not.”
She knows that better than most. Hers is a lifetime of opportunities taken, to the point that you’re almost meant to wonder how much has been fate.
The first book she owned was The Story of Doctor Dolittle, a gift she received on Christmas 1942. There was an illustration in it of monkeys making a bridge with their bodies for Dr. Dolittle to cross that inspired her then-wild dream at age 8. “But for you, I might never have gone to Africa,” she says, thumbing through the book in the Hope special. She had wanted to read from that same book in one of her virtual storytimes with children, but it’s currently being housed in a National Geographic exhibition.
It’s rare when someone seems to live out a life that was predetermined as a child, the way that Goodall can point to a single drawing in a Dr. Dolittle book. Or the anecdote that, when she was 10, she saved enough money to buy a second-hand copy of Tarzan of the Apes, which certainly foreshadowed a future lifestyle. “I fell passionately in love with Tarzan, and was most distressed when he married the wrong Jane,” she once told The Daily Beast.
As we speak, she’s in the same childhood home where she first consumed those books. “I’m looking at the trees where I used to climb,” she says. “These are my roots.”
It makes for a more potently existential backdrop to consider these later years of her life. The Hope is as much about her legacy as it is about her work. Goodall is thinking about that, too. Mortality is on her mind. The future is on her mind. Especially at this moment, how the world will be when she leaves it— and the spirit of the movement she is leaving it with—is on her mind.
When she looks back at that turning point in 1986, when she went to the conference in Chicago, was confronted with her lack of conservationist efforts, and emerged a full-blown activist, she can only be the slightest bit bitter that the life of an activist meant politics and handshaking, pulling her away from time in the wild with the animals.
“I know how incredibly lucky I have been to spend all that time out there,” she says. “My heart is filled with it. My spirit filled with it. Nothing can take that away, and that's partly what keeps me going. I think I’m meant to be doing what I’m doing. And the more obstacles that crop up, you know, I’m an obstinate kind of person.”
She lets out a hearty laugh. “I’m not going to let some of these things knock me down and flatten me and make me a pathetic little creature.” One last giggle. It’s good for the constitution. “I won’t do that.”