Jane Goodall has a message for Florida, a state where habitat destruction continues to threaten biodiversity on land and offshore: Nature is resilient — if we work together to give it a chance, it will bounce back.
“So many animal species on the very brink of extinction have been given another chance because people got together and decided they’re not going to go on our watch. And that can happen here in Florida,” the renowned ethologist and conservationist said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday morning.
“If people really care and don’t give up, wonders can be achieved,” Goodall said.
Goodall is in Tampa this week for two speaking events about her life story and the importance of maintaining hope in the face of ecological decline.
On Tuesday night, Goodall will speak and lead a Q&A during a 6 p.m. fundraising event at the Florida Aquarium. All proceeds will go to the Jane Goodall Institute, a global community-centered conservation organization founded in 1977.
On Wednesday, Goodall will host a sold-out lecture at 7 p.m. with students and educators called “Growing a Compassionate & Sustainable Future for All: An Evening with Dr. Goodall” at the Tampa Theatre.
Goodall’s groundbreaking chimpanzee observations in Gombe, Tanzania, including tool use, mother-infant bonds and compassion, reshaped how we understand the animal kingdom — and humanity’s place within it. In 2021, Goodall received the prestigious Templeton Prize for her work with chimpanzees.
We spoke with Goodall before her event Tuesday night. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
I hear it’s your 89th birthday in a few days! Happy early birthday.
Well, thank you! I’ve already had one birthday cake.
Your work with chimpanzees has transformed how we understand the animal kingdom and humanity; you’re a UN Messenger of Peace and you are an inspiration to millions across the globe. I wonder: What do you hope to add to that list before you turn 90?
It’s already such a ridiculously long list. The only thing I hope to add is: “Jane’s reached 90 and she’s still able to zoom around the world.” (Laughs.)
That actually leads me to my next question. You travel about 300 days a year — including Tuesday and Wednesday in Tampa — to give speeches and meet with governments to build support for wildlife conservation and inspire hope. As you near your ninth decade on this earth, what motivates you to carry on with your work?
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
We are, day by day, destroying our environment — upon which we depend. Although some people seem to feel separated from the natural world, we actually aren’t. And because I have grandchildren who could very soon give me great-grandchildren. And because I care passionately about nature and animals. And if we can’t get people inspired to take action, we’re doomed. Literally doomed. We have a window of time, but it’s closing.
Your research with chimpanzees is a gift to this world. You had to break down barriers and face pushback in your early career to accomplish all that you have. What do you say to the next Jane Goodall who may be discouraged by the difficult road that leads to change?
My first pushback came when I was 10 years old. I had read “Tarzan,” and fallen in love with him. (I was really jealous because he married the wrong Jane.) Anyway, that was really what pushed me to make the decision: “I’m going to grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them.” There was no thought of being a scientist because that wasn’t available to girls back then.
But if you really want to do something like this, you’re going to have to work really hard. Take advantage of every opportunity. And then if you don’t give up, hopefully, you find a way. That’s the message I share with young people around the world, particularly in disadvantaged communities.
Here in Florida, recent decades have brought a decline in some of our most beloved species. Florida panthers, for one, have teetered on the edge of extinction. In 2021, a record number of manatees died. Humans are contributing to these losses. What’s your message to Floridians about maintaining hope — and fostering change — as we witness the plight of these imperiled species?
Without hope, people don’t take action, because what’s the point if it’s not going to work? We do need to know about the doom and gloom, because I think the world is in a horrible mess. But at the same time, I’ve met so many incredible people doing so many wonderful projects — proof that nature is amazingly resilient. If we give her a chance, and maybe a helping hand, places we’ve destroyed can once again become beautiful.
I think a very important point is: So many animal species on the very brink of extinction have been given another chance because people got together and decided they’re not going to go on our watch. And that can happen here in Florida. If people really care and don’t give up, wonders can be achieved.
What is the moment (or moments) throughout your time in the Gombe forest, or elsewhere, where you experienced the purest form of connectedness with the natural world around you?
For me, being out in the forest I just get this real sense of connection with the natural world, and a feeling of some great spiritual power which seems to infiltrate every being. If you’re by yourself, you sort of can forget your humanity. If you’re with another person, even someone you love, you’re a human being in nature. If you’re by yourself, you are just a part of nature.
Is there a specific place that is, for you, considered a sacred space? When the busy day around you comes to an end, and you sit down and relax, is there a place that you go to in your mind that brings a sense of calm upon you?
I go to the forest. And if I’m at a hotel, and there’s one tree outside the window, and it’s a busy street, I will move all the furniture including the bed so that I can actually see the tree. And then that brings me into a different kind of space.
You spend a lot of time traveling, but are you still able to get away and find time to spend outside?
I get to Tanzania twice a year because my grandchildren are there, for one. And I always get to Gombe. It’s only a few days, but I can get out into the forest. And there I am back in what I consider my natural habitat.
This is your first full, in-person tour since 2019. Since then, our world has experienced a pandemic. What have you learned about our world since then? Or even more broadly, how have you seen the world change since you started your work in 1960?
I’ve seen the world deteriorating since 1960, especially the environment. But the improvement, though, is awareness. Far more people are aware. But the problem is that awareness doesn’t necessarily lead to taking the right action.
That’s because people feel helpless and hopeless. They look at the problems of the world, and they kind of give up and they become apathetic. That’s another reason why I feel I have to travel the way I do: The number of people who said, “Since I heard you, I promise I’m going to do my bit.”
Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. Because it’s flippin’ exhausting. (Laughs.)
You’re here in Florida this week to share your reasons for hope. As we face crises of human inequity, environmental degradation and climate change, what makes you hopeful?
The young people — that’s probably my main reason for hope. And also the resilience of nature that we’ve talked about. We know now that animals are so much more intelligent than science was willing to give them credit for. Because of the chimps that opened the door, there have been studies about animals showing intelligence.
Intelligence is not just in the apes, elephants and whales, but also in rats, in birds, in octopuses. Here we have this amazing animal kingdom. With all the intelligence that we document, only we have designed a rocket that went up to Mars with a little robot that crawls around taking photographs. So how weird that the most intellectual creature to ever walk the Earth is destroying its only home.
We’ve lost wisdom — the wisdom like how many of the indigenous people made a decision based on: “How will this affect future generations?” Now it’s: “How will it affect me, the next shareholders meeting, or my next political campaign?”
We’ve lost the wisdom of thinking about the future. It’s all short-term gain. That’s what’s destroying the planet.
Is there anything that a child or somebody from the younger generations has told you that has really stuck with you?
I got this letter recently, and it was just saying how she wanted to be like me and help animals. And I don’t know why it was so special, but it was. I suddenly realized that she’s in the outskirts of Tampa. (We) tracked down her school and they said, “Oh yes, we know that little girl.”
Well, we’ve managed to get the mother and her child into the lecture tomorrow. Her mother sent us a video of her telling the child and she just she kind of curls up and she starts sobbing. Oh, such an incredible reaction of joy.
Out of pure curiosity: If you had to estimate how many hours in your lifetime you’ve spent with chimpanzees, what would that number be?
I couldn’t begin to count the hours!
What’s the main point you hope to relay to Floridians during your visit here?
It would be for every single one to realize that they matter, that they can make a difference and they can choose what difference they make every single day.
What do you buy? Ask yourself questions: Did it harm the environment when it was produced? Was it cruel to animals, like factory farms? Is it cheap, because of unfair wages, paid to low-skilled workers, either in other countries or this country, too?
Before we conclude, obviously there’s a lot that you’ve given to this world. But what has the world given to you, Dr. Jane Goodall, in return?
It’s given me some wonderful, wonderful times in nature; it’s given me a proper understanding of who animals are, and time to be with them; it’s given me the opportunity to meet some extraordinary people, from all walks of life; it’s given me an opportunity to understand the indomitable spirit that people have; And it’s given me an opportunity to share in the enthusiasm of young people.