Goodall Returns to Gombe, Goodall Returns to TV


Steve sits down for a nice long talk with the incomparable Jane Goodall, discussing everything from chimpanzees to dogs.

Jane Goodall says if it wasn’t for one teacher in particular, she wouldn’t have been nearly as effective at detailing differences among the individual chimpanzees she researched. In fact, it’s possible that without learning from this one teacher, she may not have gone to Africa in the first place.

This instructor didn’t assign homework or even use a blackboard, but he did sometimes bark. “Rusty the dog taught me that animals have personalities, minds and feelings of their very own,” says the eminent primatologist and author. Rusty was her childhood companion, though not really her dog. She explains. “Rusty belonged to a hotel around the corner. He would arrive at six in the morning, bark outside the door, and then he was with me all day, except when I was in school or he trotted off to have lunch. I’ve had dogs my whole life.”

Hectic is an understatement to describe her schedule. On the road 300 days a year, having a dog wouldn’t be practical. One day she may be meeting with African tribal leaders, and then head off to appear at a black tie event in the US. Her message to audiences anywhere in the world is always pretty much the same. “You, as an individual, can make a difference.” And that she remains optimistic about saving the environment. She talks about her two most recent books, “The Ten Trusts,” with Marc Beckoff (Harper, San Francisco, CA, 2002; $23.95) and “Reason for Hope.” (Warner Books, New York, NY, 2003; $14.95).

Still, even for Goodall, it seems maintaining optimism has to be more of a challenge with each passing day. Gombe is the place where she first stepped into the shadow of man in 1960 by opening the door into the world of chimpanzees. At Gombe, her research took a very personal approach, even giving her chimp subjects names like Freud, Fifi and Frodo. At the time, she was roundly rebuffed by her scientific colleagues, who back then would never name animals.

It was Goodall who discovered that chimps are a bit more like ourselves than we ever would have bargained for, even waging wars over territories. In fact, they fashion crude weapons. Then she also learned that just like us, chimps also exhibit real love, and use various tools to help find food (such as sticks to “fish” for ants).

Today, Gombe and all the animals who live there – including her beloved chimps – are increasingly threatened. De-forestization not only destroys habitat, the roads built by logging companies allow cars and therefore people to gain access to places like Gombe.

Goodall says, “The greatest threat is the bush meat trade, commercial hunting of wild animals for food, or just because.”

Meanwhile, populations of animals become restricted to increasingly shrinking ranges. Without connections to chimp groups outside Gombe, those inside the park will eventually suffer from genetic issues related to inbreeding. The same is true for other great apes. For example, living on the tippy tops of mountains, mountain gorillas on one mountain have no way to gain access to other gorilla populations without traveling though land now used for farming and/or exploited by hunters.

Goodall does have some answers, and they seem to be working where she’s been able to try them out. At Gombe she’s involved local residents. “These people live in abject poverty, earning less than a dollar a day. We have a program called ‘Take Care,’ which now extends to 33 villages around Gombe. We teach them about why protecting their homes is in their own best interests. We’ve persuaded many of the villagers to stop hacking the tree stumps. So leafy forests are growing up in the five years (of the program), and there are again 20-foot high trees. This gives us hope to create corridors so the chimpanzees can move out of Gombe and others can move in, which is their historical pattern.”

Goodall reaches out to young people with a program called Roots and Shoots (through her Jane Goodall institute, The idea is to teach environmental and humanitarian awareness to future generations. One recent project included making peace doves – kids from around the world participated, from China to the Middle East to Manhattan. In all, there are 6,500 R & S groups, representing 87 nations.

“We can all start by teaching children about humane treatment of animals with our own dogs and cats,” says Goodall. “We have a long tradition with these animals, especially dogs. And I think there is so much we are only beginning to understand. There appears to be a telepathy that some dogs know when their owners are coming home. Dogs and cats can actually bring new life to the elderly, or people who perhaps haven’t spoken for several years, retreating into their own worlds. They may not allow us to enter these private worlds, but dogs and cats can get inside. Clearly, just being with a pet seems to be healthy.”

As for answering that age old question about who’s smarter, dogs verses cats, Goodall says, “They’re as different as chimps and gorillas. Dogs solve problems with their nose. Cats find the problem, and then use their paws in ways dogs may not. Dogs may alert their people about a problem. Cats may not.”

So, naturally, that becomes the next question, who’s smarter, chimps or gorillas? Or for that matter, add in orangutans and bonobos (sometimes called pygmy chimpanzees into the mix). “It mostly depends on the kind of test you give them. They all learn sign language, and then use those signs to communicate with one another. I’d argue that perhaps chimps and bonobos can solve more sophisticated problems.”

Then it’s pointed out that orangutans are expert at breaking out of zoo exhibits; they’re very mechanical and meticulous about thinking things through. “True,” she says. “People would be amazed if they quite how smart the great apes are. They work out problems in the wild too. Some human beings may not want to think about it, but chimpanzees do share at least 98 per cent of our genes.”

Goodall is now 69. She’s appears to be – well, delicate. She’s darn serious about saving animals, as she always has been. But she’s equally serious about saving us from ourselves. In 2001, she was named a Messenger of Peace for the United Nations by U.N. Secretary Kofi Annan. She may well earn a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Far more than politicians spewing empty rhetoric, her earnest message strikes a cord, and she’s never hesitant to take action to better the world. The thing is that not everyone has heard her message – that’s a part of the reason she’s come back to TV with periodic specials on Animal Planet.

Goodall continues, “As we continue to urbanize and become further separated from the natural world, I believe we instinctively yearn for some connection (to nature). That connection can be a pet. Even as I visit little villages around the world, generally one common link is that there are dogs to play with. I think we’ve evolved together. Maybe, that’s why they seem naturally attracted to be with us. And we seem to need them as well. Certainly, people aren’t forced to live with dogs – and some don’t. But many, many people all around do make the choice.”

Goodall cites one study where in inner city neighborhoods, care was done to garden empty lots, and window boxes and baskets with flowers were maintained outside apartments. As a result of more green, there was less crime. Even if flower boxes may assist in American inner cities, Goodall is concerned about cities in the Middle East where children are learning to hate from a very young age.

“About the fanatical fringe, well, that’s just what it is,” she says. “Fanaticism shouldn’t be confused with Islam. If they say they hate us, does hating them back solve any problem? Sounds a bit like fighting school children, except the stakes are so much higher aren’t they? You get a fanatical fringe in the Christian far right. You get a fanatical fringe in Judaism as well. All these great religions actually have so much in common than there are differences. We’re trying to grow Roots and Chutes in the Middle East.”

Unlike many of her scientific colleagues, Goodall isn’t hesitant to talk about religion. “I feel in my bones that there is an intelligence guiding the universe, and that all will be okay,” Goodall says.

Goodall says when she returned to Gombe, for example, she felt and also heard that small voice, the voice of a large power.

Does that voice sound like George Burns?

“It’s just a feeling that comes into your heart and you can’t translate easily into word,” she says, and then offer her sweet smile. “We can all open our hearts to it, if we only give it a chance.”

Goodall wears the peace dove pin, given to her by Annan. The sunlight reflects off her gray hair, which is pulled back into a pony tail. The appearance is that there is a halo over her head. There may well be; after all, if there’s an angel here on earth – it is her. Now, our job is to pay attention to what she’s trying to tell us.