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Jane Goodall on the pandemic’s wake-up call: ‘We need a new relationship with the natural world’

The famous scientist will be honored Saturday during a virtual Zoo New England gala.
The famous scientist will be honored Saturday during a virtual Zoo New England gala.Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

Scheduling an interview with Jane Goodall is not easy. Pre-pandemic, she traveled 300 days a year. Now she’s even busier.

“Traveling 300 days a year was a piece of cake,” said the iconic ethologist and conservationist of her pandemic workload, which included coauthoring “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times” with Douglas Abrams (due out in October).

“What keeps me going is the world is in a horrible mess thanks to us. We brought this pandemic on ourselves by our disrespect of animals and nature. The same disrespect of nature led to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss,” said the 87-year-old activist. “While I have a voice, I have to use it.”


I connected with Goodall via Zoom at her childhood home in Bournemouth, England. Goodall sat there serene as a monk, wrapped in a red printed shawl, her white hair pulled back, photos of animals above both shoulders. Goodall exudes a peaceful vibe, a soothing Mother Earth persona.

I reached out as Goodall is receiving the 2021 E.O. Wilson Living the Mission Award, established by Zoo New England. The honor — which goes to a “distinguished scholar, writer, and conservationist for a life’s work committed to better understanding, protecting, and educating about the incredible biodiversity found across the globe” — will be presented during the organization’s virtual Zootopia gala at 6 p.m. Saturday. It includes a prerecorded acceptance speech from Goodall.

Talk about living the mission. There are now 30 Jane Goodall Institutes across the globe, with the organization being a global leader in protecting chimpanzees and their habitats. Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program engages young people, currently in some 60 countries, to get involved with conservation and humanitarian issues. She also runs two chimpanzee sanctuaries.

Ahead of her Boston honor, she spoke in-depth on everything from childhood to the pandemic.


Q. What sparked your desire to live with animals? You’ve talked about reading two inspirational books as a kid: “Tarzan” and “Doctor Dolittle.”

A. I was born loving animals. Apparently even when I was 1½, I was studying earthworms. Mum said, “It looked like you were wondering: How do they walk without legs?” When I was growing up, there was no TV. I had books and nature. “Doctor Dolittle” was the first book I ever owned. I got it from my grandmother for Christmas 1945. I found “Tarzan” in this secondhand bookshop; I saved up my pennies. That’s when my dream of going to Africa began.

Q. There’s a Jane in that book.

A. I was very jealous of her. Tarzan fell in love with the wrong Jane. She was a wimp. A perfect wimp.

Q. You famously got the chance to study chimps with Dr. Louis Leakey — but you would’ve worked with any animal.

A. I thought about wolves in Canada, and bears. I was invited out by a school friend [to Kenya in 1957]. I heard about this Louis Leakey. He took me, his wife, and one other girl to a famous area [where] fossils of Stone Age humans were found. There wasn’t a road, there wasn’t a track, there was nothing. Just the wild Africa of my dreams. It was magic.

Q. And then you found a special connection with the chimps. You must’ve felt it was fate.


A. It was extraordinary. They’re so biologically like us — the tool-using, tool-making, kissing, embracing. When I finally got to Cambridge — because Leakey said I had to have a degree — I was told I’d done everything wrong. You shouldn’t have given the chimps names. You can’t talk about their personality, their mind or emotions, because those are unique to humans. I knew they were wrong because I’d been taught by my dog as a child. We’re not the only beings with personality, mind, and feeling.

Q. What lessons did you learn from chimps?

A. To have fun with my baby in the sort of way of mother chimps — tickling, laughing, playing. I learned that they’re like us in so many ways, but the difference is this explosive development of our intellect. Which makes it absurd that the most intellectual creature ever is destroying its only home. This is why I keep at it. I have to. I have no option.

Q. Any message you’d like to leave with readers?

A. Hopefully this pandemic has taught us we cannot go on the way we are. [We need] a new relationship with the natural world. We’re creating more and more situations that will encourage these so-called zoonotic diseases, when a pathogen jumps from an animal to a person. This pandemic’s been predicted for a long time by people studying these diseases. We have to do things differently. Think about your own environmental footprint each day. Think about how you could live in greater harmony with nature.


Interview was condensed and edited. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.