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Jane Goodall Keeps Going, With a Lot of Hope (and a Bit of Whiskey)

In the war, you learned to take nothing for granted. Even continuation of life. My father’s brother, Rex, joined the air force and he was killed. That was a big blow to Mom, because they really liked each other a lot. I sometimes think she’d rather have married him than my father. One day we were in Bournemouth in the evening and suddenly she screamed, “Rex!” and started sobbing hysterically. And it was the very moment he was shot down over Egypt.

The war clearly affected you quite deeply.

I remember seeing the pictures from the Holocaust, and that completely changed my whole understanding of humans. It was shocking, shocking. I remember climbing my favorite tree in the garden, a beech, and looking at these pictures and thinking, How could anybody do this?

But here again, my mother was clever. Of course we hated the Nazis, and thought everything to do with Germany was horrible and evil. But after the war, my father’s sister married someone who was sent out to be in control of the British sector of Germany. So Mom sent me off to live with a German family, because she wanted me to understand Germans weren’t evil, it was the regime.

When did you know you wanted to make working with chimpanzees your life’s work?

I don’t know that I thought of it quite like that. There was no thought of becoming a scientist, because girls weren’t scientists like that in those days. And actually, there weren’t really any men going out there, living in the wild. So my model was Tarzan. I saved up my pennies, and spent hours and hours in this little secondhand book shop, and had just enough to buy this little book, and that was when my dream began. I will grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them.

How did you make it happen against such long odds?

When I dreamed of Africa, everybody laughed at me at school. How would I do that? We didn’t have money. Africa was far away. It was the Dark Continent in those days, and I was just a girl. But my mom said, “If you really want this, you’re going to have to work really hard. Take advantage of every opportunity, and don’t give up.”

When you finally got into the field, how did you approach the work?

I didn’t have any academic training, and so I didn’t have this reductionist way of thinking. But fortunately I just applied common sense. I knew that to find out about the chimps, I would have to get their trust. And that took months. They ran away. They’re very conservative.

I came to understand how like us they are. I knew their different personalities, almost like members of my family. I’d seen them using tools and making tools, and it was clear they had emotions like happiness, sadness, fear. That they had a dark and brutal side, but also love, compassion, altruism.

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