Interview: Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall on her new book, North Korea, and Bible-thumping conservatives
By LANCE GOULD  |  September 23, 2009

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If only there were more trees to be torn down, we could utilize them . . . to fill newspapers with the endless depressing stories out there about the environment and all its hapless inhabitants. The good news is, to break the doom-and-gloom cycle of cynicism, we have Dr. Jane Goodall — internationally renowned primatologist and United Nations Messenger of Peace best known for her study of chimpanzee behavior in Tanzania — to offer a remarkably optimistic point of view in her new book, Hope for Animals and Their World (Grand Central). Hope details how a variety of endangered species have been rescued from the brink of extinction — it’s a “you can do it” ecological pep talk. I caught Dame Goodall — who travels 300 days a year advocating for animals — over the phone in New York.

In the book, you introduce us to Old Blue, the last-remaining female South Pacific black robin who “saved” her species. The researcher who studied and rescued her has an approach that seems to reflect your own philosophy, which has been controversial in scientific circles in that it anthropomorphizes animals.
That’s my favorite story ─ that set me off on this whole track! I met Don Merton a long time ago. And that story is soooo amazing. And that man is such a lovely man. You know, he loves those little black robins. And he’s not ashamed of saying he loves them. It’s not so much anthropomorphizing, but it’s that one should be totally objective and you shouldn’t have any empathy with your subjects, and you shouldn’t give them names, and they can’t have personalities, and they ought to be numbered, and they don’t have feelings. But, of the amazing people that I’ve talked to in writing this book, I haven’t found any who actually felt that. Sometimes they felt they ought to put that front out in order to get funding. But down underneath, they care passionately about their animals. And a lot of them will actually admit it. If they’ve retired ─ they’re very happy to admit it then!

What are your feelings on the other side of the argument?
Well, scientists are supposed to be able to be objective. It’s almost never true, but certainly with animal behavior it’s not really true. Take chimpanzees, more like us than anything else. When I first got into this field, chimpanzees were considered an excellent model for learning about human disease ─ including mental disease. And so they were put in small cages in labs to be studied. But at the same time, there was a huge reluctance to admit the equally striking similarities in intellectual ability, and emotion, and feelings. So, to me this was illogical and not at all scientific ─ being on one side and not the other. So, fortunately, my teacher when I was a child taught me that animals did have personalities, minds, and feelings. And that was my dog. And I don’t think anybody who shares their lives with an animal, in a meaningful way, would deny them personalities, minds, and feelings.

Did you say the teacher was your dog?
Yes. My teacher was my dog. I think many people have had teachers like that.

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