Primatologist Jane Goodall: ‘Tarzan married the wrong Jane’

The 83-year-old chimpanzee expert has been the subject of more than 40 films. Ahead of the release of the latest, Jane, she explains how she went from ‘dreaming a man’s dreams’ to living her own

Growing up in Britain during the second world war, Jane Goodall was often told her dreams were just that – fantasy, unrealistic, unachievable: “I had read Tarzan and fallen in love, although he married the wrong Jane, the wretched man,” she jokes. “I wanted to live with wild animals and write books about them. But people would say: ‘How can you do that? Africa is far away, we don’t know much about it. You don’t have any money in your family. You’re just a girl.’”

Now, at 83, the celebrated British primatologist tours the world, never stopping anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time, giving sold-out lectures on what she has learned over five decades of chimp study in Tanzania.

Angelina Jolie, Colin Firth and Judd Apatow are vocal fans. Michael Jackson, she says, wrote Heal the World about her. Goodall just wants to get on with the job of better protecting our planet from the effects of climate change, but now her schedule has been interrupted once again by National Geographic’s Jane, a film about her life (of which there are now more than 40). She sounds mildly annoyed when she tells me that she recently had to pause her activism to travel to the Hollywood premiere of the documentary, which is directed by Brett Morgen and scored by Philip Glass. “Brett and Philip did such a good job,” she concedes, “I feel I need to support people who care that much.”

Goodall with chimp David Greybeard, circa 1965.
Goodall with chimp David Greybeard, circa 1965. Photograph: CSU Archives/Everett Collect/REX

In the film, Goodall’s own passion for the chimps is captured on 16mm by her former husband, the late wildlife film-maker Hugo van Lawick, and carefully restored and edited from hundreds of hours of film from the National Geographic archives. It opens with footage of Jane riding a boat out to Gombe Stream national park in 1960, the voiceover explaining that she had always “dreamed a man’s dreams ... dreams of adventure”. It was in 1957, when she had finished school and completed a secretarial course, that Goodall plucked up the courage to call Dr Louis Leakey, a well-known paleoanthropologist. “It was quite scary because he was a very irascible kind of person. I said: ‘I’d love to come and talk to you about animals,’ – a bit pathetic – but, anyway, he agreed to meet me.” Leakey took Goodall on a trip to Kenya, where she describes scaling a gorge to escape a lion and coming face to face with an angry rhino – just your average summer for a 23-year-old from Bournemouth. By 26, and with no formal scientific education as of yet, Leakey sent her to Tanzania to observe and record the behaviour of chimpanzees. “Leakey didn’t tell me at the time, which I think is mean of him, but he wanted somebody whose mind was, as he had put it, ‘unfettered by the reductionist scientific theory of the time’,” she smiles.

Goodall describes the most important quality for living in the jungle as “patience”, something that comes across in the striking images of her staking out the animals in Jane. At times, the chimps grew violent and attacked her camp. There were thunderstorms, extreme heat, scorpions in her army surplus tent and loneliness to contend with. But the toughest part of it all? “Oh, the most awful thing was that the chimps ran away from me. I knew if I had time they would get used to me, but there was only money [funding from the Royal Geographic Society] for six months.” Thankfully, she soon made findings that would keep her there; the original breakthrough discovery that chimps built tools, just like humans did; they had personalities and minds, just like humans did; they even had civil wars.

Goodall with her friend and later husband Hugo Van Lawick.
Goodall with her friend and later husband Hugo Van Lawick, 1964. Photograph: Samp/Daily Mail/REX/Shutterstock

Goodall says that her relationships with the chimps helped her own development. “I think one of the most important things I learnt from the chimps was about child psychology, that the most important thing for a child in their first two or three years of life is to have between one and three adults who the child can totally trust, and to have fun with your infants. You know, the first people to be interested in my research were not the biologists and zoologists but the human child psychologists.”

When Goodall’s findings first made the British press, she was serially undermined. “They said: ‘She’s only the National Geographic cover girl because she has got nice legs,’” she recalls now. “The image of beauty and the beast was what they loved.” That must have been difficult, I suggest. “I didn’t mind. I have to say that it was useful. And when I watch the movie, I see what they were saying about my legs. They were really nice, weren’t they?” Goodall says that being a woman had its advantages in Gombe. “At that time they were just emerging from this awful colonialism and white males were seen as a bit threatening, intimidating. But I was a woman, I was ‘weak’ so they wanted to help me.”

For all Goodall’s fearless pioneering in a male-dominated field, she does not identify with the label “feminist” today. In the 70s, she sent her son away to boarding school in Britain so she could carry on her work with the chimps – “that was normal at that time,” she adds – and decided to end things with her husband when he found his calling making nature films across Africa. “I couldn’t have left to be his assistant,” she says.

Over time, Goodall’s extraordinary life and work has become the stuff of legend. It has expanded, too – she has founded the Jane Goodall Institute, to focus on wildlife conservation, and her Roots & Shoots programme teaches children about environmentalism in almost 100 countries. It is reported, she tells me, that Leonardo DiCaprio wants to make a feature film about her.

“Maybe Angelina Jolie could play you,” I suggest, given how outspoken the actor has been about her admiration of Goodall. “No she can’t,” Jane quickly corrects me, “because it has got to be the young Jane … and you can have millions of facelifts, but you can’t get from her age to a 23-year-old.”

Still, Jolie was among a rollcall of celebrities who attended a screening of Jane with a live orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl last month, the first time a documentary has sold out the venue’s 17,500-seat capacity. Why does she think her story has captured so much interest? “I think partly because of the reputation of the movie, of Brett, of Philip,” she says. “But also for the same reason people are flocking to my talks; we’ve got the Trump administration, we’ve got Theresa May and the Conservatives who couldn’t care less and happily frack, and Australia doing the same sort of thing. We’ve got a world in chaos – violence, war, domestic violence – so people are losing hope. That’s why my talks are always called ‘Reason for Hope’ or something like that. Because the world’s in such a mess.” And with that, she is off to save it again.

Jane is released in the UK on 24 November

  • This article was amended on 14 November to correct one instance where chimps were referred to “monkeys” . Chimps are not monkeys; they are apes.


Amelia Abraham

The GuardianTramp

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