Jane Goodall Answers You!

The world-famous scientist answers readers’ questions. 

Earth Day is on Sunday. It’s an important time to honor our planet. It’s also a great day to appreciate the great men and women who work to protect it. Jane Goodall is one of those heroes. 

Jane Goodall was born in 1934 in London, England. At the age of 26, she traveled to Gombe, Tanzania, to study chimpanzees in the wild. From up close, she learned how chimps make and use tools. Dr. Goodall has now spent more than 55 years supporting and speaking out for our environment. 

Ava (9 years old): What made you start loving chimpanzees?

Goodall: I loved all animals when I was a child. I just wanted to go to Africa to live with and learn from wild animals and write books about them. Then Dr. Louis Leakey suggested chimpanzees — the beings most like us. How lucky. I don’t even think of them as “animals.” Just as we humans are animals.

Beatrice (9 years old): What was it like when you went away from home to study the chimps?

Goodall: Going to Gombe to study the chimps was a huge and wonderful adventure. My biggest worry was how on Earth I would be able to find the chimps in the maze of thickly forested valleys. But the smell of Gombe, the sounds of Gombe — it was all magical.

Emily (12 years old): Did you care what people thought of you when you went into the forest on your own?

Goodall: No. I only cared about what the chimpanzees thought of me! My mother came to Gombe with me for four months because the authorities would not allow me to be alone. But she never climbed into the hills. She looked after the camp.

Sariyah (7 years old): Why are the chimps so comfortable with you? How long did it take for the chimps to get to know you?

Goodall: It took about a year before ALL the chimps were relaxed. The first one, David Greybeard, was relaxed after about six months. And he brought his friends Goliath and William with him to my camp.

Riley (9 years old): What was it like to be face to face with primates? 

Goodall: Very exciting and very rewarding. There were moments when it was scary, when the big males bristled with rage and charged about, stamping and swaying branches and sometimes throwing rocks.

Elizabeth (10 years old): What is your favorite memory from when you were in Gombe?

Goodall: When Flo, the most dominant female, trusted me enough to let her 4-month-old son, Flint, come up to me and touch my nose. She kept a hand around him and looked worried, but she trusted me enough to let him make contact. 

Héloïse (9 years old) and Sophia: Why did you choose to study chimpanzees and not other animals?

Goodall: I didn’t choose. Dr. Leakey wanted me to study them. He thought it would help him to imagine better how Stone Age men and women might have behaved. Since chimps are our closest relatives.

Kelli (11 years old): Was it hard to become what you are today? What kind of challenges did you face? How did you get past them?

Goodall: When I was 10 and wanted to go and live with animals in Africa, everyone laughed at me. How could I do that? Africa was far away. We didn’t know much about it. My family had very little money. AND I was just a girl. Girls did not have those opportunities. 

But my mother said, “If you really want this, you will have to work very hard, take advantage of opportunities, and never give up.” That is the advice I give to young people today. I earned the money by being a waitress until I had enough for a boat trip to Africa. 

Jit Jat: What’s your favorite part of working with chimps?

Goodall: The most fascinating part is that they all have different personalities and different life histories. There are nice ones and nasty ones. They are so like us. Even after nearly 60 years, we are still learning new things. I am not living in Gombe anymore, but I visit Gombe twice a year. And the research continues.

Lucia (11 years old): Did you have role models growing up? If so, who?

Goodall: My role models were characters in books. (TV had not been invented yet. And we couldn’t afford to go to the movies). My role models were Dr. Doolittle, Mowgli from the Jungle Book, and Tarzan!

Mary (11 years old): How much work did you have to do to become a woman scientist at that time?

Goodall: When I went into the field, I had not been to college. We could not afford it. After two years observing chimps, Leakey sent me to Cambridge University to get a Ph.D. I had to work very hard to learn to write in a scientific way. I loved that work. I loved learning how to analyze the data I had collected. Much later I wrote a book, The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. To write that book was a LOT of very, very hard work.

Seir: How do you feel about animals in zoos and cages?

Goodall: I prefer animals to be wild and free. The sad thing is that in so many parts of the world, wild animals are hunted and trapped and mothers are killed to steal their infants for sale. And of course, habitats are destroyed as human populations grow and move into wild places. And there is logging and mining. The important thing about a zoo is that the animals should have good groups and lots of space. And they must not be allowed to be bored. 

Sophie (11 years old): How can I start studying animals? I’m in elementary school, and I love animals!

Goodall: I started studying animals as a child in the garden and on the cliffs above the sea. I studied my dog and cat. And I watched the sparrows and pigeons in towns. If you want to get started, join our Roots & Shoots program and start a project that involves observing your local wildlife like I did.

Lauren Kemnitz’s 6th-grade class: Is it true that chimps love bananas?

Goodall: Almost all primates enjoy bananas. But it is not a very important food. In Gombe there are no longer any banana trees, and they don’t eat them anymore. What is true is that they eat mostly fruits — there are many different kinds in the forest. They also eat leaves, flowers, stems, bark, insects, birds’ eggs, and the occasional meat from small mammals that they hunt.

Kim Palmisano and Kelley DeMauro’s class: What would you do if chimps went extinct?

Goodall: If chimps ever become extinct I shall be dead myself! But we shall not let them become extinct!

Nancy Nowaczyk’s 3rd-grade class: What are some ways I can help Planet Earth the way that you have?

Goodall: Start a Roots & Shoots group for the class. There are lots of ideas on our website. And remember that every day you live you make a difference. You can choose what sort of difference you will make. Try not to waste food or water. Pick up trash. Be kind. Be helpful. Turn off lights. Plant vegetables, trees, and flowers. Visit senior citizens to cheer them up. You can come up with all sorts of ideas.

Sasha (10 years old): Can you please send this note to Dr. Goodall? Thank you for all you do.

Goodall: Thank you, Sasha. I can only do what I do because of all the wonderful people who help me. You can help too by making good choices each day and helping to make the world a better place.