Dr. Jane Goodall: I'm not going to fight for animal rights

Jane Goodall
Dr. Jane Goodall with Gombe chimpanzee Freud. © Michael Neugebauer
The renowned primatologist and conservationist on the need for scientific empathy, the impact of economic development, and why children give her hope for the future

Laura Sevier: The list of endangered species around the world is growing. There is often a sense of hopelessness and doom and gloom surrounding conservation. In your latest book Hope for Animals and Their World you take a more hopeful approach by emphasising the positive. Is this designed to inspire conservationists around the world not to give up in the face of so much adversity?

Jane Goodall: It's to try and give hope to the young aspiring biologists so that they don't get persuaded to do something different - because everybody's telling them that what with climate change and everything we're certainly heading for ecological collapse.

I do think we are reaching a point of no return - but we haven't got there yet. And the point is, we can't predict the future. For all we know, half the human population on the planet might die of some terrible new disease. We just don't know.

LS: The United Nations declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity. What needs to happen on a wide scale for wildlife to be protected? Or is it a case of species by species as you show in the book?

JG: Somehow we have to wake people up. What I'm concentrating on is youth. My youth programme, Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots (for young people of all ages from pre-school through college) is about giving people hope. I think it's criminal not to give children hope because they are born with hope and we have to nurture that.

Also children are brilliant at changing the behaviour of their parents. Of course it's also necessary to work with decision makers and legislators and teachers but it is working with children that gives me the greatest hope.

LS: What are the main obstacles conservationists face trying to save species from extinction?

JG: Bureaucracy is one of them. I have talked with many biologists who have a clear idea as to what should be done to save a species from extinction, but they have to go through trials and tests to get proof. And while they do this, precious individual animals are dying and the overall situation getting grimmer.

Another major obstacle is the constant battle with economic development. Yet another is the lack of understanding of the general public.

LS: How can we persuade people to care about 'creepy crawlies' or species considered to be dangerous such as wolves and crocodiles?

JG: Probably again through their children. I don't think there's a recipe you can spread out to say ‘this is what you can do to change people's minds' because people are so different.

Often it is really hard. Overall, though, I've found that the best way for me to change people's attitude is by telling stories. If you can find a story to illustrate how a tiny seemingly insignificant bug can contribute to the health of an eco-system, then that gets through to people.

LS: The stories in your book illustrate the determination of the men and women who fight - sometimes for decades - to save the last survivors of a species. What story most moved you?

JG: The Black Robin, without any question. At one time there was only one fertile female of her species. She and her mate were the Adam and Eve of their species. Now there's about 400. I think that's an amazing story - and it was in the wild, no captive breeding.

Don Merton, the biologist who saved them, loves the birds, and he doesn't mind saying he loves them. He talks about them in such a good way. He is a wonderful person, and it's a story that hardly seems credible and yet it's true.

LS: In conservation, emotional involvement with one's subject is considered inappropriate by many scientists. Do you think that a paradigm shift in this view is one of the keys to conservation?

JG: I do. I've fought for that my entire career right from the beginning when I was accepted by Cambridge University. It is a fallacy that you can't be empathetic and objective at the same time - of course you can. It's simply a question of discipline. It is how science should be taught.

But of course, science wasn't taught that way back then (and mostly it is not even now). If a student felt empathy with a little frog, then he or she would be unwilling to de-pith it. So students are taught to suppress their natural empathy, be objective and not worry about what the animal is feeling, or might be feeling. This was the teaching that created the Nazis.

LS: Your research into chimpanzees showed humans are not the only beings with personalities, rational thought and emotions. Is the scientific community starting to take more seriously studies about the emotional lives of animals and a view of them as intelligent, sentient beings?

JG: I think it's certainly more widespread. Most of the resistance is from those scientists who are doing unpleasant things to animals, or from hunters and people working in intensive farms or abattoirs and so on because they don't want to believe that animals have these feelings. It makes it difficult to do their job.

LS: Do you think that animals should have rights?

JG: I personally am never going to fight for rights per se. All this fighting for human rights and yet we abuse them everyday, all around the world. So while we're still abusing human rights is it really going to help the animals? It won't harm them to have rights. I would always say 'good show' to the people who fight for them. My approach is different. I'm fighting for human responsibility.

So my job is to make people think of animals differently - as they really are. You can have a law - and we're surrounded by laws - but it's so often possible to get around them - they are continually being broken. So I want people to understand that animals really do have personalities and feelings - so that they want to obey laws that protect them.

LS: Do you think that conservation and agriculture can be harmonious and go hand in hand or does one have to be at the expense of the other?

No, we have to try to return to some of the old ways. For hundreds of years nature and agriculture lived side by side. And then, with the advent of agribusiness, everything changed. But now, in the UK, farmers are being asked to put their hedges back.

But there are so many problems to overcome as conservation comes up against vested interests. It seems to me that we've lost that wisdom that people used to have, especially the indigenous people. They used to ask: ‘How will this decision that we make today affect our people in the future?' Now we make decisions based on: ‘How does it affect me, now? How does it affect the next shareholders meeting, three months ahead? How does it affect my next political campaign?'

Don't we care about our children? Of course we do. But there seems to be a disconnect between our so clever brain (after all, we have got people onto the moon!) and the human heart, the seat of love and compassion, which should ground us to the planet we live on. It simply doesn't make sense that the most intellectually smart creature that has ever walked on planet Earth is destroying its only home, and destroying it so heedlessly. So how do we mend the damaged connection between brain and heart? Through the youth, I think.

Hope for Animals and Their World is out now (£17.99, Icon Books)

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Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

The headline of this article was changed on 16th April, 2010

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