All I needed to know was that Dr. Jane Goodall was available for interviews, and I was there, even if it was only for 10 minutes, even if it was in the Midtown Buca di Beppo.
Goddall was on a junket supporting this year's Earth Day offering from Disneynature, the John C. Reilly-narrated doc Bears, which follows a mother and her two cubs during a season-long trek through the Alaskan wilderness.
But the 80-year-old is primarily known for her work with another species. She started her study of chimpanzees in Tanzania in 1960, and has gone on to become a legendary primatologist. Her regard of chimps as sentient individuals smart enough to use tools did much to shape our culture's current regard of animals, and pissed a lot of people off in the process. (From her Wikipedia: "Humans had long distinguished ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom as "Man the Toolmaker". In response to Goodall's revolutionary findings, Louis Leakey wrote, "We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!")
I found her to be an engaging mix of dry and warm, soft-spoken and sharp. She answered all of my questions seriously even when they were goofy. She's a good sport, I think. Below is more or less our entire exchange, with minor edits.
Gawker: You're Disneynature's ambassador. Can you tell me what that means exactly?
Jane Goodall: Well, all it means is that when they produce one of these movies, I help to promote it for two reasons, really. One is that I truly think movies like this, which can involve the whole family, on the big screen, told with a story so that it's not just a documentary...I think that this can give children the kind of experience, which might give them the longing to learn more and to go out into the world. It's a very intimate sort of glimpse that you get. And secondly, because if people go in the first week, some of the ticket sales go to National Park Foundation, and we need to look after the national parks.
Do you have a particular interest in bears?
Well, only in that they're large carnivores and they're charismatic. You know, when I was a child reading all these books, bears and wolves and mountain lions always figured quite large. I've never had much to do with bears. Until three or four years ago, I hadn't even seen a wild bear.
Do you consider yourself an icon?
Well, I would never say I was an icon, but so many people have said I am, so I suppose I am. I mean, I can't not be what everyone says I am. But I don't feel like an icon.
You're not a diva?
I'm not a diva.
Have you ever been like, "Do you know who I am?"
Uh, the way I've coped with this...whatever it is, is I know who I am and I grew up in a good family with lots of teasing. I've watched a lot of people who became famous who completely change and I think it's because they tend to believe all the hype that's out there. I don't think there's that much hype about me.
Yeah, but I didn't know about it.
What do you think about the internet and the way that cute animals are promoted and consumed? Do you think that's a good thing for animals?
You mean things like YouTube? Most of what I've seen—because people send me the good stuff, I don't surf it but it pops up—most of it, I think, can only help and not harm. The whole internet, the way we use it, is [what makes it] good or bad. And it can open up all kinds of stuff. The scary thing is how much isn't true.
What about the notion of anthropomorphism, which figures heavily in Bears via John C. Reilly's narration regarding the animals' feelings and fastidiousness. Anthropomorphism is something that your work was also accused of. Where are you with that? Is anthropomorphism a bad thing?
Well, it depends. The Disney commentaries do go a little over the top, but you know, it's for kids. It's better to do that than to be the cold objective. A healthy balance is best. When I was accused of anthropomorphism, when I was told at Cambridge that I couldn't talk about chimpanzees having personalities, minds, or feelings, because [those things] were unique to us, I knew the professors were wrong because of the teacher I had as a child: my dog, Rusty. You can't share your life in a meaningful way and not know that animals have personalities and that's obvious in this bear film. They have their personalities. You know they have minds capable of thinking things out because you see it happening in this film. And the feelings are pretty clear, too.
Why do you think it took people so long to come around on the fact that animals are individual, sentient beings?
I don't know. Partly it's because once you believe that animals have feelings, it's harder to eat them, shoot them, do tests on them. Certainly in scientific research, it's better for the scientists to believe that. That's why so many bad things can happen. I feel it's really important to link the head with the heart, the left brain with the right brain to achieve our true human potential. When science is just the left brain, that's when I think that horrible things can happen.
I read that you were the only human to be accepted into chimp society. Is that still true?
Well, that term that you use "accepted into the society," that sounds more like Dian Fossey, who sat on the alpha gorilla's lap and made noises to them. I'm just trusted. I'm accepted. I'm not afraid, but for all of our people there now, it's the same. I'm not any different.
Do you ever miss being there with them?
I miss the early days, I do. I was so lucky. I basically had it to myself, learning about these chimpanzees. Nobody knew anything about them. Discovering their different personalities, different life histories. I was lucky.
Does chimp society smell bad?
Oh, they smell nice. Gorillas smell horrible.
But chimps don't? Why, because of the grooming?
I don't know, it just is. I know we had one female chimpanzee who smelled like a gorilla. And we had one of our field staff that smelled like a gorilla. I don't know what it is. But no, chimps have a nice smell, baboons have a nice smell.
That's fascinating. I thought your life would have been full of bad smells.
No. Not at all!
What's the worst thing you've ever smelled?
Oh, rotting flesh. Or some of these chemical things. Drains. Drains, when they seep out sewage... What are we talking about smells for? Come on! What a silly question.
Bears smell nice too.
Did you ever see that Simpsons episode that made fun of you?
[There was a video here]
What did you think of it?
I thought it was funny.
Yeah. I do have a good sense of humor.
I saw you on The Colbert Report. It was fantastic.
(Laughs) He was stumped at the end.
Do you like animals more than people?
I like some animals more than some people, some people more than some animals.
Have you ever lost your temper and been mean to a chimp?
No. You wouldn't last long if you did.
What was your most frightening moment?
Our biggest male, Frodo, was always mean to me. We could never understand. I saw him coming and I knew he'd left the big group, obviously upset and angry. I thought maybe he'd been beaten up. I saw him coming and I thought, "I know he's going to redirect his aggression on me." I was quite far away, I saw him in my binoculars. So I went right up the hillside off the trail, and he saw me and he came up after me. He dragged me all the way down. It was a sort of precipice. He stamped on me, and then he left and I thought, "Thank god he's gone." And then he came back and he stamped on me again. My head hit a rock. He didn't do that on purpose, but there was blood. And then he pushed me over the cliff. Luckily there were some bushes there, which I know he knew because there'd been another person, too, who knows that Frodo could have killed him and didn't.
So he was just trying to assert himself?
He was just trying to prove his dominance. I kept telling him that he is. He's dead now.
Are there any animals you don't like?
Um... Not really. I can't think of one. Individual animals, yes, but not whole species.
Bugs even? Are you into bugs?
Well, I don't like the bugs that bite me, but that's only because they bite. It's nice to watch them.
Just before the last question, I was given the sign to wrap up, so I did, thanking Jane and telling her what an honor it was to meet her. Immediately, she called over to the Disney publicists sitting a few feet away, tattling: "He's talking about smells!" I told them and her that I was just trying to get a feel for her fascinating life, inside and out. I thanked her again, and before I walked off, she offered, "If you want somebody to take a photo..." Yes, that would be excellent, I said. A publicist suggested we take it next to the nearby Bears poster. There was a moment of uncertainty regarding positioning—while it would make sense in terms of symmetry for us each to stand on either side of the poster, it wouldn't make much sense in terms of taking a picture that I could cherish for the rest of my life. I wondered aloud what we should do, and Jane said, as if to inform more than observe, "You want to stand next to me so you can embrace me." And I told her, yes, that's what I wanted.