Talking CHIMPANZEE With Dame Jane Goodall, Chimp Lady Extraordinaire

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Yes, I called Dr. Jane Goodall the "chimp lady", and I'm probably going to catch some sort of monkey ape hell for it. The best part, of course, is that she'd take it as a compliment.

Meeting this pioneering naturalist and tireless activist in person, it's hard not to be completely smitten by her charms. She's a woman that spent much of her adult life deep in the jungle, providing groundbreaking analysis on animal behaviour (and, more controversially at the time, animal emotions and animal intelligence).

Goodall has dedicated the last decade or so to her famed Jane Goodall Institute, an attempt to save the habitat of the creatures she has documented so well, and to raise awareness about this most astonishing of animals.

She came to Toronto to speak about her connection to the Disney Nature film Chimpanzee (review here), a film that, somewhat amusingly, she had little to do with the actual making of.

Please tell us of your role in the creation of the film

I know the team, the guys that made the film are superb. They said it was one of the most difficult films they had to make, and I can well believe it. I know people that have worked in those forests, I know the scientist that was showing them around and he's not tolerant of human weakness.

The amazing thing about this film... We know Disney, those kind of films, this could have been scripted as the chimpanzee Bambi. When they first began this film they were delighted because a fairly well habituated mother had a baby, and they called him Oscar. The whole plan of the film was built around Oscar, and watching him develop, watching his relations with the rest of the community, and through that, getting to know the community members.

The mother of Oscar was killed by a leopard, and they thought, "My goodness, the whole film is destroyed, we've wasted 6 months filming". Amazing, the top raking male who's a crusty bullying guy chimp adopted this baby, and his whole personality changed. He became much less involved with his position as leader. The filmmakers were concerned it might be able for the neighboring group to invade the territory.

And again, as though scripted by Disney, the leader of this other group is this most extraordinary individual with this scarred face. His face is like something out of a horror movie.

You get this whole scenario of how the communities work, and the warlike relations between them, and in the end of course Oscar's group triumphs and protects its territory.

The Alpha male stops caring for Oscar as he used to, so the Oscar's future when we end the film is a little uncertain.

Are you still actively part of your chimp study?

I am no longer doing the chimp study, although it is ongoing. Right across Africa their numbers are decreasing.

The hunters now are just in it for money, they'll even kill mothers. Sustainability used to be the game. Our educational, our "Roots and Shoots" program, and community based orgazation to ensure that people living around the forest have more sustainable lives, that they improve their lifestyle but in a more environmentally responsible way.

This film will really, hopefully, raise a banner. It's not about the dangers facing the chimps, it's about how amazing they are, and how alike us they are. So, please help JGI protect them.

It doesn't say that in the film, but I'm saying it! [laughs]

What do you see the role of fiction or documentaries to instill a sense of stewardship for a younger generation?

When I began, nobody knew anything about chimpanzees, and the first people to step in and help to dispel some of the myths was National Geographic, who began supporting me. They sent my first husband, [Baron] Hugo van Lawick, to actually film the behaviour.

It was that early film, the footage that took Gombe's chimps into people's living rooms, and introduced them as individuals, and showed clearly we're not the only beings with personalities, minds and feelings.

When I was a little girl of 10, I fell in love with Tarzan, and was furious when he married that other Jane.

My dream was to go to Africa, live with animals and write about them. I didn't have any plan to become a scientist. I wanted to be a naturalist, like the early explorers who went out to the wild places a had lost lots of adventures.

So, right from the beginning, my feeling has been about the importance of sharing what you learn, what you're lucky enough to experience in these places which most people never can.

There's a real challenge in a film like this of overly anthropomorphizing the animals, giving them names, of having "good guys" and "bad guys" and so on. Do you have any reticence about giving too much narrative to the behaviours of animals?

If you over anthropomorphize obviously it's not a good thing. On the other hand, it's better to over anthropomorphize and have people think animals are more like us than they are then to go the other way and, say, well, we're completely different, as used to be the accepted norm, a sharp line with humans on the one hand and animals on the other.

When I came back and reported what I found at Gombe, I was firmly told that I'd done it all wrong. They should have been numbered, I couldn't talk about personality, mind or feeling except in the human animal. What really peeved me was the fact that the scientists were ready to take a chimpanzee, because biological they're so like us, sharing roughly 99% of our DNA, and subject them to all kinds of nasty medical procedures to try and learn more about human body, desease, reactions to vaccines, and so forth.

And yet there was this block, when it comes to sharing an emotion, they feel happy or sad, then absolutely not.

How does this film compare? The commentary is not over the top. The chimpanzees aren't given personalities, chimpanzees have personalities, they have emotions. The photography, when it's done right, you wouldn't even need the words, because it's very obvious when a little chimp is depressed. You see it, you hear it. I think it's a good balance.

How unusual is it for an Alpha male to adopt an orphaned chimp?

At Gombe we had a 12 year old, non-related adolescent male, the equivalent of a human at 15, he adopted and save the life of a non-related infant. It happens, but not often.

When you're Alpha-male, you really have a lot of hard work to keep your position. If you've got a little baby clinging on to you, riding on your back, sharing your food, you can't devote the time necessary.

What is your thoughts about the use of animals in entertainment?

It's jolly hard. The use of chimps in entertainment is horribly negative, it's one of the things as an institute we fight, the use of chimps in circuses, or as pets. It really depends what it is. If it's something like a dog, or a cat, it's probably positive, because those animals are bread to be with us, they're our friends. If it's a wild animal, it depends how it's used. But I don't see enough movies to be able to really answer that.

Actually, I'm trying to find somebody right now who will come and make a film about the benefits of dogs to people to show in countries where there isn't an ethic of understanding dogs.

How much time do you still spend in Gombe?

I'm 300 days on the road. I get back twice, but it's literally two to four days, just because I have to be in the forest. Usually I get there and there's a film team, or a group of VIPs, and it's not very peaceful. [Banging on desk] I have to have one day alone in the forest, otherwise I won't even go.

What do you want the impact of this film to have?

I would love them to say, OK, I want them to find out about JGI, because they're helping chimps. We have guardianships, which helps us with the 150 or so orphans. I hope people checkout our website, janegoodall.ca here, or janegoodall.org.

What hasn't been shown in documentary form about chimpanzees that you feel still needs to be told?

By and large, so many have been made. This recent film, Jane's Journey which was shortlisted for an Oscar, that shows a whole other side of my life as well as the chimpanzees.

I think people are not quite aware of the fact that they're disappearing so fast. That's partly because they see them in entertainment, there's still advertisements, there's still pet chimps, and people think there must be lots of them. But they're going so fast. Their forests are going so fast.

So, we need a film that shows more of what's happening to them, but without leaving people with a sense that there's nothing we can do. That happens very often, I've heard so many environmentalists, and people come out from their lecture thinking, well, it's all hopeless. When you think it's hopeless you do nothing. It's why I started Roots and Shoots, because if all our young people listen to this doom and gloom that we listen to every day, then why should they bother?

Do you have any political views regarding the situation in West Africa that may be contributing to this doom and gloom?

I think the political background is an important part of it, but an awful lot of it is the big multinational corporations coming in. They're the root of a lot of the problem. It's the logging companies, the mining companies that are not African. These are monsters to try and fight.

Despite these evils, you remain optimistic?

We will still lose more chimps, but I'm absolutely sure we will save enough forest. If we can the system to work, and you get the heavy polluters to actually pay people to not cut their trees down, like they did in Costa Rica, then there's some hope, hope to save a big enough chunk of forest to actually be sensible to protect chimps.

Chimpanzee opens on Earth Day, April 20th. For the first week of release, Disney is committed to donating a portion of the box office will go to Jane Goodall's Institute
Around the Internet:
blog comments powered by Disqus
​​