Jane Goodall is in isolation these days along with everyone else, since a fund-raising tour was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. She is staying at her family home in England, not in Tanzania, her primary home when not on the road.
Dr. Goodall changed the way the world views chimpanzees with research that began when she first went to Africa 60 years ago this July, a young woman without a college degree, to observe chimpanzees in the wild at what is now the Gombe Stream Research Centre in Tanzania.
She later became a tireless advocate for chimps in captivity. When she began her work, chimps were routinely used in medical research, a practice Dr. Goodall and other advocates helped stop in the U.S.
Today, the Jane Goodall Institute supports the continuation of the research she started at the Gombe Stream Research Centre as well as programs in community involvement in conservation, and education. With international travel just about shut down, the institute, which is active in 30 countries, recently held a virtual global meeting. “It worked so much better than I thought,” she said. “I was really impressed.
I called Dr. Goodall on Thursday and spoke to her for about a half-hour on the subject of humans, animals, the coronavirus pandemic, and what gives her hope.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you?
Well, I started off being unbelievably frustrated that I was grounded. And then I thought, well, OK, that’s, that’s not helpful. So I began thinking of all the different ways that I could stay out in the public without being there, so to speak. And then I thought, well, goodness, I’ve got a backlog of about four years of emails. I can start on that. And I’ve also got about eight or nine years of piles of stuff, stuff off the lecture tour that got dumped with no time to sort it out before I was off again. So I’ve started that. It’s crazy.
So this pause has let you step back a bit?
It’s catching up, you know. But there are some things that are so unbelievably worrying. In the U.S. you have people who can apply for unemployment or something. But what about in Tanzania, for example? The people running the bars, the restaurants, selling food at the side of the road — all banned now. And they make just enough to keep alive for a week and pay the rent and there’s no social security, nothing for them.
Being isolated has made me think of what it must be like for chimpanzees who were isolated in captivity, who depend on physical closeness and touch.
I think about it all the time. I’ve thought about it ever since I saw secretly filmed footage of these social beings in medical research labs in 5-foot by 5-foot cages. The first time I went into one of those labs. It was horrendous. And solitary confinement. As you say, it’s bad enough for us, but we have all these other ways of distracting. And what about these animals who have nothing?
But you know the other thing is, if you’re trying to look for silver linings in this horrible time. It has reactivated the discussion about animal trafficking, selling wild animals for food or for medicine. Everybody’s pointing fingers at China, but already the government’s made a total ban on the markets, selling animals for food and on trafficking, importing wild animals. So we just have to hope that because of the magnitude of this pandemic they will keep that ban. At the moment it’s temporary, but let’s hope they enforce it forever, and close down the market for animals used in traditional medicine.
Are there particular achievements of yours that stand out in terms of their future impact?
I was the eighth person in the history of Cambridge to come in without an undergraduate degree. And I was really scared. You can imagine. And of course didn’t help when the professors told me I’d done everything wrong. I shouldn’t have named the chimps, they should have been numbered. And I couldn’t talk about personality, mind or emotion because those were unique to us. But luckily my dog had taught me otherwise as a child. So I could stand up to them, not in an aggressive way. I just calmly, you know, went on talking about it that way. And I remember the first scientific paper I wrote was for Nature and it was about tool using I think. And so I described the chimpanzees, I gave them names and they left the names.
But when I got the article back, they made corrections and they crossed out everywhere I put he or she. I mean, one thing is very clear, the difference between the sexes. But animals were “its.” So I angrily crossed out the “its” and they left it. So that was the first breakthrough. And I think because the chimps had been found to be so biologically like us, along with the behavior shown in Hugo [van Lawick’s] films and photographs, that really pushed science into thinking in a less reductionist way.
We are not separated from the rest of the animal kingdom, we’re part of it. Gradually that’s gone more and more mainstream. So that’s one thing, helping people understand that animals have personalities, minds and emotions, and now you can study those things.
My stance is that ultimately there will be a time with no animal experimentation. What pleased me about the chimp situation is that I was in it from the ethical point of view, but the fact that the chimps were put in sanctuaries because the research was not useful was a far better outcome than if it had been done on ethical grounds. It’s like fossil fuel. People say we want to stop using fossil fuel now. Well that’s clearly impossible. You can’t just suddenly stop something. And this medical research on animals won’t suddenly stop, although I wish it would. The trouble is that people working on alternatives just don’t get the right support.
Back to our current situation. What is it like where you are now?
It’s a family home. We came here in the war. It was my grandmother’s. I’m looking out at the window at the tree I climbed as a child and I’m looking over at all the books I read as a child, my Dr. Doolittles and my Tarzans, and me and my dog, Rusty. There’s a big picture of him opposite me, the dog who taught me about animals, that of course they have minds and personalities and emotions.
Any personal advice on what might help with isolation?
A sense of humor. There’s all this nonsense about loo paper. There’s two very funny videos. Apparently one is of a man sitting on his loo and a dog comes in and steals the loo roll. And then there’s another of a different man sitting on another loo and the dog comes and grabs one end of the roll and you follow him. He goes down the stairs and the man on the loo is sitting watching as his loo paper is reeling away in front of him. The dog takes it to another man. During all of this we have to keep a sense of humor.
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