Jane Goodall Explains Empathy and Why Kids Need Pets

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Jane Goodall
Goodall joined 400,000 protestors this September during the People's Climate March in New York City. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Jane Goodall has perfected the art of patience. The world-renowned primatologist, now 80, spent decades of her youth calmly stalking wild chimpanzees through Gombe Stream National Park, including long stretches of frustration — and a bout of malaria — before the astute apes let her close enough to study them. That persistence paid off, of course, as Goodall made historic discoveries about chimpanzee behavior that changed the way we see not just our closest living relatives, but also ourselves.

Patience isn't the same as complacency, though. The diligence that helped Goodall shed light on Gombe's chimps in her 20s now nurtures a sense of urgency in her 80s. She defies her age by traveling nearly nonstop, campaigning to protect the habitats and well-being of not just chimps, but wild and captive animals worldwide. Goodall spends 300 days a year traveling for various speeches, interviews, conferences and fundraisers, leaving little time to pause and reflect on her inspirational career.

On any given day, the U.N. Messenger of Peace and Dame of the British Empire might be visiting kids in her Roots & Shoots youth program, discussing forest protection with government officials or drawing public attention to climate change, as she did earlier this year by joining the People's Climate March in New York. And all that's just a fraction of what she does via the Jane Goodall Institute, a nonprofit that has spread to 29 countries since 1977 and sprouted Roots & Shoots in 1991. JGI works on a wide range of projects, such as rehabbing orphaned chimps in the Republic of Congo, running a peer-to-peer education program for girls in Uganda and helping Google create a Street View tour of Gombe.

I was lucky enough to meet Goodall in person recently, catching up with her before she received an award at the annual Captain Planet Foundation Gala in Atlanta. We covered a swath of topics, including climate change, wildlife conservation, the mysteries of happiness and the origins of empathy. She maintains a disarming serenity despite her busy schedule, often explaining that after decades in Gombe, "the peace of the forest has become part of my being." Even as our interview ended, she took time to patiently answer an extra question, discussing the friendly dog who taught her about animal sentience and why it can be "desperately important" for human children to grow up with pets.

Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall speaks at the Captain Planet Foundation Gala in Atlanta on Dec. 5, 2014. (Photo: John Amis/Captain Planet Foundation)

What was it like marching in the People's Climate March?

It was actually very exciting. They expected 100,000 and they got nearly 400,000. And it was quite fun. I was marching next to Al Gore, the foreign minister of France and [U.N. Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon.

But I think what is exciting about it is the reason it went up to nearly 400,000 was everyone was tweeting and Twittering and Facebooking, which couldn't have happened 10 years ago. And I just realized that this is a very, very powerful tool for if you're wanting to bring attention to an issue.

Which aspects of climate change worry you the most?

Well, I mean the fact that everywhere I go in the world, people are saying "Ugh, the weather is very queer. It's very unusual for this sort of weather to happen at this time of year." So, I think, which worries me the most? The level of sea rise, the increased frequency of storms and the hurricanes, the worst droughts and the worst floods, and just generally the fact that the temperatures are rising. And the little animals and plants are getting in a muddle. They don't know what should happen when.

Are you optimistic that we can prevent a worst-case scenario for climate change?

I think we have a window of time to slow things down. It depends on a change in attitude. What happens if we carry on business as usual, with a stranglehold of the big multinationals preventing a buy-in from government and people to modern technology like clean, green energy? If we just go on extracting, whether it's timber, whether it's minerals, whether it's oil and gas destroying the environment? If we carry on deciding development is more important than the environment, and another shopping mall — well, cut down a little forest or whatever's in the way? If we carry on with our not just needing money to live but living for money? If we carry on not addressing crippling poverty? Because when you're really poor you'll cut down the last trees to grow food, because you have to, or you'll buy the cheapest things even if they're made with extreme harm to the environment or child slavery or something like that. So it's up to us to change, and how do you do that? That's the problem. We know what we should do.

Jane Goodall
Goodall poses with members of the Kenyan chapter of Roots & Shoots in July 2014. (Photo: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

How optimistic are you that we'll actually do it?

Well, that's why I'm working so hard on our youth program, Roots & Shoots. We've now got about 150,000 active groups in 138 countries. We're all ages, preschool through university. And everywhere I go, there are young people wanting to tell Dr. Jane what they've been doing. You know, they all do something to help people, to help animals, to help the environment, and they are changing the world as we speak. And they're changing their parents. And a lot of them are now up there, and they've got their own children and they're passing it down to their children as another sort of philosophy of realizing that the small choices you make each day actually do make a difference.

And we have to realize that there's no point in blaming politicians, because they're not going to make tough decisions even if they would like to, unless they've got 50 percent of their constituents behind them. And it's not much good blaming the big corporations if we go on buying what they produce. So a lot of it's to do with education. Like we were saying, in China many people truly believe elephants shed their tusks. They've been told. So ivory is OK, and they don't know, they're not aware. But now films are coming out. We've got about 1,000 groups across China, and they are beginning to understand.

Speaking of which, we're also seeing a global extinction crisis wipe out species at 1,000 times the historical rate. Do you think we'll let iconic wildlife like elephants or rhinos disappear?

There is so much public interest in this now, there are so many big awareness campaigns. But I think it's the demand. As long as there's a big demand, as long as ivory and rhino is worth more than gold, they will go on being poached. And as long as there's the level of corruption there is in government, they will continue to be poached. It comes down to money and poverty. If rangers don't get paid much, and some poacher comes along and says, "I'll give you so much money if you show me where that rhino is," they're going to do it. Unless they're very dedicated. And some of them are.

Jane Goodall with baby capuchin monkey
Goodall kisses a baby capuchin monkey at a Chilean primate sanctuary in 2013. (Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

And that's been a big part of your work, not just conserving wilderness in a vacuum but incorporating local communities into conservation.

Yes. Because I don't think conservation in a rural community will ever work unless the people are your partners. Unless they get some benefit and get some pride. And get education and awareness and understanding how we have to protect the environment if we care about the future.

It is hard to stop poaching or illegal logging without local support, especially if jobs are scarce. That's often where eco-tourism comes in, but it can still present its own challenges. How do we balance the needs of conservation with letting in enough people to be profitable?

I don't know how you do it, but you have to be very careful how you manage the tourism. The big temptation is, "Oh, we make so much money from six people watching the gorillas, we'll now make it 12, two groups. And then we'll make it 36." And that happened. So if you go on allowing more and more, because you want to get more and more money, then you destroy the very beauty that people are paying to come and see. But again, the public needs to be better educated, and the local people need to understand and get enough out of it without having to destroy it.

Are there any particular places where you feel like eco-tourism is being done right?

Well, I haven't been to all of these places, but I think Costa Rica is doing a good job. I think they're doing a good job, from what I gather, in Bhutan. And I'm sure there are many others. There are a lot of small eco-tourist places that are doing a super job. We went to one in Alaska, with the brown bears. ... And the little group that does eco-tourism there, they're just doing it the most super, proper way. There's only accommodation for a few people. Because people want to grow bigger and bigger and bigger. If you have a small operation that provides what you need to live and get your children to school, why try to make it into a mega? It's this chasing for money and power that money brings.

Jane Goodall in Costa Rica
Goodall visits La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica during a trip to see Roots & Shoots students. (Photo: Mayela Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a mentality, then, that just requires a certain amount of restraint?

Yes. And also, you know, the king of Bhutan made this happiness index, showing that happiness isn't equated with having lots of money. And they replicated that, some scientists in America. They followed these immigrant groups who arrived with nothing. And as they were earning more and finding a niche in society, obviously their happiness level rose, or whatever the index is.

Some of them, having got a little place to live, got their children in school, able to clothe themselves and eat decently, they were happy. They stayed there. Those who went on because they must have more and they've got to do better and they've got to compete with this and that, they did, but their happiness went down. And I think that's really important. People are out there in this rat race, they're not happy, they're stressed, they get sick. And it's not a way to live. We've gone mad.

Why do you think that is?

This materialistic society. I don't know, it happened after World War II. I suppose when people found they could, and began to realize money was being equated with power. It's just "I'm the biggest, I'm the best." It's a very primate feeling, really. It's like the gorilla beating his chest. But it's out of hand, totally.

How much do you think we can learn about ourselves from great apes? There's a lot of research suggesting empathy is rooted in our biology, based on the behavior of primates. In your experience with chimpanzees, have you noticed any social or environmental conditions that promote empathy? Is it the kind of thing that's just based on individual personality?

It's mostly within the family. I think it stems from mother-child, like so much behavior does. And, you know, as you get a more complex brain, then you're reaching out, you're thinking of more than just mother-child versus the immediate family, and then it can go beyond. At least that's the way I've always thought of how it evolves. So I mean, we've learned also that, unfortunately, chimps can also be brutal and violent, just like us, so that's presumably, both of these — empathy, compassion, origins of love, but also brutality — probably came along our separate evolutionary pathways from a common ancestor. Only we've developed a brain that is able to control our behavior. We don't always do it, but we can.

You've said your appreciation for animal sentience began with Rusty, a dog you befriended as a child in England. In what ways could you sense his sentience? Do you think growing up with pets is a good way for children to learn empathy for other animals?

I think it's desperately important for a child to grow up with a pet, providing there's somebody to make sure that they understand how the animal should be treated. And, you know, Rusty worked out problems. He worked out that if he was hot, he could trot down the road, down to the chine and have a little swim and come back. He even did pretend games. He was unlike any other dog I've ever had.

And he wasn't even our dog! That's what was so strange. He belonged to somebody else. And we never fed him. So he came in the morning, barked at the door about half past 6, spent all the time with us till lunchtime, and went home to his hotel for lunch. They knew where he was; they didn't care. He only came back until he was booted out about 10:30 at night. So it was as though he was sent to teach me how amazing animals are, what great companions they can be.