She never failed to warn us, and yet she remains an incorrigible optimist. The English primatologist dedicated her life to demonstrating that humans and chimpanzees are brothers… within 1.3% of the genes. At the age of 88, this animal pioneer, tireless advocate for the environment, publishes “The Book of Hope” (ed. Flammarion). She traces the observation of the planet’s wounds and claims that everything can change. Interview with an activist who kept faith in the human race.
Departure from Paris. “You can judge a country by the way it treats its animals,” said Gandhi. How do you judge western countries today?
Jane Goodall. Better and better. Consciousness is real. In my English countryside, for example, every new development (buildings, roads, infrastructure, etc.) must include protected walkways to allow animals, wild boar in this case, to move around undisturbed. In Europe and America, areas were returned to the wild. Even animals whose extinction seemed certain were reintroduced.
However, we see that the number of tigers, elephants, rhinos, polar bears or orangutans – the list is long – continues to decline…
Among all the problems to be solved, that of factory farms is a major threat. In particular due to the intensive use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers. They flow into rivers and end up in oceans to poison the food chain. Not to mention cattle ranches, an unbearable atrocity that, in addition, leads to the clearing of forests in insane expanses. All this to have crops that can feed increasing herds. In addition, large amounts of water are needed to convert plants into animal protein. And these beasts produce methane, so bad for the planet. We’re going to add antibiotics to keep them alive and the bacteria they make ultra-resistant. We are paying the price: some drugs no longer work in humans. If we were reasonable or just logical, everything I just said should make us vegetarians.
You led your fight for animals by appealing to our emotions. In the face of emergency, the younger generation is much more aggressive. What do you think ?
When I talk to politicians, I look for a point of convergence. Love dogs, for example. Because you can only change people from the inside. We have to reach their hearts. That’s why, in my lectures, I tell stories that sometimes move them. When you approach decision makers aggressively, especially if it’s in public, they seem fine, but deep down, they’re angry. And we have the opposite effect.
So you think a “Greta Thunberg” attitude doesn’t advance the cause?
It was never my way, even when I was young. I use my anger as an engine, not an end. I was talking to scientists who were experimenting with animals in their labs, telling them about my experiences with chimpanzees. Thanks to the photos, I explained to them how close their social life was to ours: the animal we tortured for scientific reasons was us. The greatest cruelties are often committed out of ignorance. Robert Gallo, the discoverer of AIDS, once replied, “But Jane, I never see a chimpanzee in my lab! I just ask for a blood or serum sample.” He agreed to read one of my books and then go to a military laboratory, which I would never have access to, to see how the monkeys used in his research were treated. He was stunned and horrified, I believe. And he had this line: “Jane, I had no idea there were so many animals locked in basements in Washington DC!”
“I am not against zoos. Some even enrich the lives of their residents.
Do you have radical ideas about animal protection that you don’t want to express in public?
No, not really. I say what I think and try to take all factors into account. I know, for example, that it is counterproductive to explain that villagers who have nothing and are forced to eat should not be hunted. To achieve my goal, I go to see them with local authorities, try to understand their needs and find solutions. For example, with microcredits that will allow them to live with nature instead of destroying it. I strive to show them that protecting wildlife is also good for their future. The idea is not to separate humans from animals, but to understand that responsible coexistence benefits both.
In your opinion, is the Covid pandemic directly related to the destruction of animal habitat?
Obviously ! The transmission of a pathogenic element is facilitated when the two species come into contact more easily. Added to that is all traffic. In Asia, in Latin America. There is even a wildlife market in the Netherlands, where rare snakes and birds are sold. However, the global effort to stop this trade has increased dramatically. Much better.
Three quarters of the world’s population lives in an urban environment. Is this not one of the reasons why we have lost our relationship with nature?
This is a fundamental problem indeed. We are disconnected from the natural world. Even for the younger generation, who live in the countryside with their eyes downcast on their smartphones. The association I created, Roots and Shoots, seeks to return to the natural. And to green the cities. It is scientifically proven that living in a natural environment is good for our mental and physical health. In Japan, doctors even prescribe days outdoors. They call it “forest bathing”. In our western cities you will notice that green spaces are found in beautiful neighborhoods. And concrete as far as the eye can see, in poor neighborhoods. However, crime has been proven to decrease when a neighborhood is greened. This was seen in two tough neighborhoods in Chicago. One had been greened; the other, no. A few months later, the violence curve was no longer the same. In the neighborhood where trees were planted, gardens installed and walls greened, she fell.
“98.7% of chimpanzee DNA is similar to ours. What sets us apart is the language.”
Do you consider animals the same as humans?
I wouldn’t say they are equal, but they deserve our compassion and are entitled to dignified treatment. Unfortunately, we still haven’t achieved that among humans. When we are shocked by the fate reserved for certain animals, we must remember that, in certain countries, human beings are subjected to equivalent treatment. Talking about animal suffering makes it easier to understand that animals, like us, have feelings and feel pain or fear. What people are most aware of today, I believe.
Recently, a pig kidney was transplanted into a human, paving the way for the creation of organs. What is your opinion on this issue?
We must not do this. There are alternatives that do not require raising an animal in solitude and stress. We know how to “grow” organs artificially from human stem cells. The real difference between an animal and us is our intelligence. This is what we must cultivate, so as not to fall into easy barbarism against a defenseless animal. Almost all positive medical experiments on animals show that 90% of them do not work on humans. That should be enough to convince us that this is not the way to go.
Zoos, circuses and dolphins are closing one after another in the western world. What do you say to a child whose parents can’t take him to Africa? That he can never see a lion or an elephant “in real life”?
I’m not against zoos. No way ! Those in San Diego or Prague are fine. There are also some in the Netherlands. If the enclosures are big enough, if the right social groups are brought together, animal life is enriched. On the other hand, it is not necessary to throw food at the animals, but to create “puzzles” that force them to “work” to obtain it. Because animals are like humans, they like to have fun, to be intellectually stimulated.
Of all your accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
Probably to have changed the “reductionist” way in which Western science looked at the animal world. In Cambridge in the 1960s, I was told that I was on the wrong track in naming the chimpanzees I observed. I was denied the right to speak about his personality and emotions. These were characteristics unique to man. However, at 98.7%, chimpanzee DNA is similar to that of humans. How could we, for years, be so arrogant as to believe that we humans were on one side and they were on the other? My work made it possible to see the obvious. They and we are not so different. We hardly are, in fact. What made humans superior and smarter was language. This is our biggest difference.
Do chimpanzees have qualities that humans don’t?
We have the same qualities. Chimpanzees have ways of resolving conflicts before they escalate, like we do. They share their food, like we do. Unfortunately, they make war, just like us. They can be terribly aggressive and relentlessly cruel. I’ve seen groups that grew up together, killing each other for territory, killing babies, drinking the blood of their enemies… Don’t think chimpanzees are angels. They are like us, I repeat!
What did you think of “Planet of the Apes”, by Pierre Boulle?
At the risk of surprising you, I have never read the book! But I loved the first movie. When they put scientists in cages!
Consult: Our special page dedicated to the heroes of the planet
How would you like to be buried: among apes in Africa or among humans at home?
I want to be cremated and have my ashes shared among the 2,128 Roots and Shoots centers I have established around the world. Let the young people spread a few grams of Jane Goodall under a tree where the animals will come for shelter, on whose branches the birds will come to perch. So, even gone, I will continue to give back to nature what she gave me.