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Interview: Jane Goodall

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


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.

And as far as Professor/Dr. Leakey ─ was he also of that mindset?
Well, Louis Leakey was very passionate about early humans. His life was spent picking up the remains of our early ancestors. So we never really got into a discussion about animal personality. But of course he would have agreed, because most rational people do. I mean, honestly, you cannot know an animal with a reasonably intelligent brain and not know these things inside yourself.

Does your United Nations affiliation give you room to maneuver with difficult or unwelcoming bureaucracies, or even regimes, that are not particularly interested in ─ or welcoming of ─ your efforts to save endangered species?
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s our youth program, the Roots & Shoots, which we’ve established in 111 countries, that allows us to do so. We’ve even got a couple of groups of Roots & Shoots in North Korea. And I think my message is completely apolitical. It’s completely about saving the planet for our children and theirs. And so there’s nothing really sinister about me. I’m a woman. I’m not a big, strong, aggressive-looking woman. And so I’m welcome. I mean, China ─ we’re all over mainland China, Roots & Shoots.

So you’ve been to North Korea?
Twice. And worked with the people. Visited the schools. And although I’ve never met and don’t wish to meet the heads of that regime ─ because it’s a terrible regime ─ I’ve met with the people who run one of the very few NGOs for the environment in the country. It was a private visit, although of course the government knew I was there. And it may surprise you to know that, out of the three books in North Korea that have been translated into North Korean from English, two of them are mine.

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Related: Not so elementary, Culture wars, Going ape, More more >
  Topics: Books , Science and Technology, Media, Nature and the Environment,  More more >
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 See all articles by: LANCE GOULD

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