What’s been a recent discovery about animal behavior that you’ve been especially surprised by?
Well, I have loved learning about the intelligence of the octopus. You’ve seen My Octopus Teacher, I’m sure.
I have become great, great friends with [director] Craig Foster and we communicate almost weekly about some of the wonders that he discovers down in the ocean. There’s new things cropping up all the time in the world of animals, insects, birds, and more sophisticated ways of studying them. It’s just a magic time for any student who wants to go into that field.
When you left Gombe, you became a hugely famous public figure. I imagine that must have been jarring after spending years in the wilderness. What is your relationship with your celebrity?
First of all, I’m very bewildered as to how it happened. I’m just Jane, a very shy little girl who grew up loving animals, only wanting to go and live with them in the wild and write books about them. But the rest of it, I suppose it began when the National Geographic agreed to come in and support the work and sent a photographer and filmmaker and the pictures of “Jane and the chimps” hit the news and it was a bit romantic and unusual.
But when people began to think of me as like this icon for conservation, I was horrified and tried to hide. I would go through airports with dark glasses and my hair down. Didn’t seem to matter, people still recognized me. So after a while I decided, “Well, this has happened. So I better make use of it.” But basically there are two Janes. There’s this one sitting here under my beech tree for half an hour every midday with a robin and a black bird, taking the old dog for a little toddle around the block. And then there’s the one out that’s being demanded.
I came across a 2002 interview in which you just said that the war on terror was overshadowing environmental concerns—which we now know, 20 years later, was extremely prescient. But back then, what sort of reactions would you get when you would say that?
Well, it depends how you say something, doesn’t it? It’s like population growth. If I talk about it, and it’s very important, I say there’s seven point something billion of us now. We are already using up natural resources in some places faster than nature can replenish them. That is said to be closer to 10 billion in 2050. So if we carry on with business as usual, what will happen? It’s a question, rather than any attack on anybody. While the war on terror was obviously, well, that was a mistake in the first place, people were going to be concerned and there was this huge growth of security in airports and concern in schools and things.
And then of course the next thing to deflect attention from climate change and biodiversity loss was the pandemic. And obviously people are getting sick, their friends are dying and it was horrible. But the pandemic will get pushed away. But climate change and loss of biodiversity, they are existential threats. And if we don’t tackle them, we are doomed.
When animal rights issues and conservation issues come up, there’s often pushback because of the idea that it’s somehow frivolous and we should focus on humans first. How do you reach past that and get people to care?
By talking to people as individuals, by presenting facts fairly, by not blaming, by telling the sort of stories that people remember. I was once in a taxi and it was very early in the morning. I was on my way to the U.S. and I was driving out to Heathrow and I thought, “I’ll have a nice little snooze.” The cab driver knew who I was and he went on at me, “You’re all like my sister, I haven’t got time for the likes of you. You care more about animals than people.” He went on and on. I sat and talked to him through the little window, told him stories about the chimps, told him how our programs in Africa were improving the lives of the people, helping girls to stay in school, better clinics, better education.