When She Isn’t Working to Save the Planet, Jane Goodall, 83, Loves Animal Videos on YouTube, Too

The 83-year-old talks everything from the environment to her favorite YouTube videos.

National Geographic/David Guttenfelder

Ask Jane Goodall about animal videos on YouTube and you will unlock her heart. “It’s absolutely phenomenal,” the world renowned conservationist says over the phone about one in specific: a clip of a coyote playing with a cat. Her interest in animal videos isn’t surprising if you’ve followed Goodall’s half-a-century-plus career, which has brought humans closer to understanding their chimpanzee relatives—starting with her 1960’s studies in Gombe, Tanzania, where she embedded herself in the forest alongside her subjects, discovering their use of tools—and, since then, promoted environmental protections with the Jane Goodall Institute, educating the public on how they can help. But it’s nonetheless a fun thought: the octogenarian sitting in front of her computer, laughing at YouTube videos, as if she was any of the other millions of people who do so.

That might be in part because it’s rare for Goodall to partake in anything extracurricular. At 83 years old, Goodall still spends almost every one of her waking hours poring over her work. (When does she relax? In her sleep, she says.) One exception, however, is her involvement in JANE, a stunning documentary by director Brett Morgen, who most famously helmed 2015’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. The visual feast of a film consists of never-before-seen footage—unearthed from a storage locker and artfully restored—of a young Goodall during her iconic years in Gombe, captured by National Geographic filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, who she fell in love with and later married. Soundtracked by Philip Glass, JANE tells the story of an ambitious outsider—with only her intuition, but no formal training—who manages to break into a male-dominated field. It’s inspiring and uplifting, while serving as a timely, ominous reminder of how much devastation humans are wreaking on the environment.

Off camera, though, Goodall isn’t as lugubrious as you’d imagine, considering the state of things. In her opinion, there is still time for us to protect the environment to ensure future generations can enjoy it. She even has a solution, which Goodall offered in between talking about her favorite TV shows, the last concert she attended, and revealing why JANE, which arrives in theaters on October 20, is the most special film on her yet.

Have you gotten used to seeing your face on screen by now?

I’m afraid I have. I’ve had so many documentaries made about me, starting in 1963, the first National Geographic film. Since then, it’s been almost nonstop.

What makes this film so much more special than the others?

It’s footage from from the early ‘60s, which hasn’t been seen. It’s more immediate. It takes me back more than any documentary to how I was back then and that wonderful time when I was out in the forest gradually gaining the trust of the chimpanzees and getting to know them as individuals. As the film progresses, we learn more about their different personalities. Some of it is quite sad and shocking; some of it is fun. We also learn more about the price of life and my relationship with Hugo, who I married, and the birth of our son. It’s less contrived than other films.

What was it like the first time you viewed the film?

They brought it over to me in England and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be another documentary. Same old footage.’ When I actually watched it, I was very moved because I felt I was back in those days, and I realized that really was the most amazing time in your life.

The film was found in a storage locker and Brett Morgan and his team spent hours working to renovate the film so that it’s suitable for the technology today, because that was the old celluloid film that had to bring up to a high resolution. I think the amazing thing is the incredible quality of the footage Hugo was able to obtain with that old gear. People don’t know these days, but you had to thread the film. Young filmmakers today have no idea how difficult it used to be.

When you were working out of the rainforest during this time, what kinds of books or music did you take with you to occupy your mind during your off hours?

I didn’t. When you’re out in nature, you can’t be bored. You need to be immersed in the environment where the chimps live so I would watch birds or insects or just sit and absorb the magic of the rainforest and understand the interconnectedness of all living things and how each little species has a role to play in the tapestry of life. To take a book out into the forest would be sacrilege because you might miss something. Finding out about the chimpanzees was difficult and I couldn’t miss a thing. I always had to be alert.

These days, what is the first thing you usually read in the morning?

Emails. Back then, I was up before light every single day in the hills. These days, I’m traveling 300 days a year all over the world. The first thing I have to read is emails.

Do you read news after?

I try to catch the news as well. I need to be aware of what’s going on so I pick up a newspaper when I can, because newspapers have bits of information that isn’t online. I try to keep abreast of what’s going on, not just in the country I’m in but in the world.

What is your go-to newspaper?

If I’m in the UK it’s The Guardian. If I’m in the U.S. it’s The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.

How closely do you follow political news?

Too closely to be happy. In almost every country I visit, the politics are unhappy and there’s corruption and politicians are not seeming to care about future generations but only about now. Business are so concerned with making money now, now, now, and the next shareholders meeting. I understand the competition and that they have to keep their heads above water, but we’ve gotten ourselves into such a mess with materialistic society that people have forgotten life isn’t just about work, work, work and money, money, money and stuff, stuff, stuff. Happiness doesn’t equate with having lots of money; enough money, yes. We need to have time to be with family, though. We need to have time to be in nature. We need to have time to have a dog. That’s getting more and more rare and poverty is increasing. The people with money get more and more wealth and that’s causing some of the political problems around the world.

Now we’ve got climate change to deal with and hurricanes and flooding. This is why I’m traveling 300 days a year: to try and give people hope in if we get together and start thinking of different ways we can live—especially through working with children in our Roots & Shoots program—I still think we have a window of time to try to turn things around.

What needs to happen for us to protect the planet for future generations to enjoy?

For the ordinary person, the most important thing is to become aware of what we’re doing to the planet and to realize that the planet has finite natural resources and we’re using them up as though they’ll go on forever, and they won’t. Already some finite resources are being used more quickly than the planet can replenish them. We’re running out of fresh water. We’re draining wetlands. We’re chopping up forests. We’re losing animal species. I won’t go into all the gloom and doom but we need to realize that each single one of us makes some kind of difference everyday. Some people can make much bigger differences, like a CEO of a big company or a politician.

For the ordinary person, think about what do you buy? What do you eat? Where does it come from? How was it made? Did it harm the environment? Did it involve suffering of animals? Was child slave labor involved? Is that why it’s cheap? In order for us to make the biggest difference that way, we have to alleviate poverty worldwide because if you’re really poor, you’re going to buy the cheapest food and the cheapest clothes because you have to. You can’t think about where it’s made and if it harms the environment, etc. If you’re living in a rural area, you cut down the last trees because you have to. If you’re a poor farmer, you use pesticides and chemicals because you’ve been told that’s the way to do it and you can’t afford to go organic and you have to survive. We have to alleviate poverty and we have to try and create more sustainable lifestyles. There are so many people on the planet and it’s going to lead to absolute disaster if we don’t do something about it.

You’ve had this awareness throughout your career. Do you think it’s easier now to be more environmentally conscious?

When I began in 1960, most of these things I just mentioned weren’t a problem. After World War II, it began. It’s becoming much easier through the media and social media to understand these problems. The reason people don’t do more is that they don’t know what to do so they feel hopeless and helpless. The young people get it. They realize that it might be nothing to pick up a piece of plastic each day and recycle, to get organic food, and to be vegetarian. That moves us towards the kind of world we would all like to think that we have, but we’re losing it fast.

How often do you use social media?

The Jane Goodall institute uses it all of the time. I’ve got a blog called Jane Goodall’s Good For All News because there’s so much good going on in the world and people need to know that because that gives people the impetus to join on the bandwagon and do good. I don’t personally use social media because I haven’t got time. I try to keep up with my email and do my best but it doesn’t always work. I have hundreds and hundreds of unanswered emails that I should probably delete.

What is the last thing that you Googled?

The latest news from Puerto Rico.

What was the last film that you saw in a theater?

It was a three-quarter-made Planet of the Apes because we were involved in advising them on if their human chimp behavior was correct. The last completed film I saw was Born in China, which is Disneynature’s incredible film about animals in China. It took three years to make.

Out of all of the films you’ve seen in your lifetime, which one sticks with you the most?

I have to tell you that I’ve seen so few films. Since I went to Gombe [Stream National Park] when I was in Africa, I didn’t see films. One film that sticks with me is Lord of the Rings. I think that’s the last film I went to see that I wasn’t taken to because it wasn’t part of my job. I remember some of the old movies like The Lady and the Tramp, Brief Encounters—takes me way back and dates me completely because that’s the time when I watched films.

What are some of your favorite TV programs?

In between tours, my sister and I would watch something by Agatha Christie and Miss Marple, or something like that. When I’m in a hotel room, everyone puts the TV on. I don’t think I’ve put the TV on in a hotel in I can’t remember. So I get my news from looking at papers or occasionally checking Google.

What was the last book you read?

I’ve got a Kindle so I use it when my eyes are too tired to read email or when my laptop runs out of energy on the plane, for example. I thought I’d never get a Kindle because I adore books. I grew up with books. We didn’t have any TV back then. But, with the Kindle, I can now travel and take 50 books with me and I certainly can’t carry 50 actual books. And with the Kindle you can enlarge the print so it’s easy when your eyes are tired.

What are the most recent books you downloaded to your Kindle?

It was Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. I just downloaded all of Dickens’ books. I have all of Lord of the Rings. I have all of Thomas Hardy and all of Shakespeare, as well as other books. I also download some of those that are free or cost 90 pence that are romantic nonsense. It puts me to sleep. I read a lot of books about the environment as well. Up until very recently, I didn’t have time for books except research because in every spare moment I was writing my own books. I’m not writing a book now, but for 14 years there wasn’t a single month when I wasn’t busy trying to get a book finished. These were serious books like Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink, which is about animals rescued from extinction by amazing people. So I’d try to meet those people when my tours took me there. Otherwise I would phone them and then write it all up.

How do you relax?

I don’t really have much downtime. I’m trying to keep up with emails, writing introductions to peoples books, or doing blogs. I try to keep contact with my friends. In order to make my mind relax, I usually play an audiobook to go to sleep. Once you know the book, then you can go to sleep. It’s soothing.

What’s the last audiobook you fell asleep to?

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

When is the last time you listened to music?

I used to go to concerts a lot but the last music I listened to was a Schubert quartet. My friend in Boston actually got the youth string quartet from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to come to her house so we had a private concert. It was some Beethoven and some Schubert—very beautiful—and don’t ask me exactly which they were because I can’t remember.

What was the last concert you saw in public?

It was too long ago to remember. I think it was Schubert in New York with a friend of mine about seven years ago. I don’t have time for music. If I have an evening off when I’m not lecturing I have so much to catch up with I can’t go to concerts anymore. I travel so much I can’t have a dog anymore and that’s what I miss more than anything.

When was the last time you had a dog?

It was when my mother was still alive and I was spending a bit more time at home in England. That was 2000. There’s always a dog when I go home—my sister lives in the house—but it’s not the same as having your own faithful companion. Of course, all the time I was in the field in Africa I couldn’t have a dog. So I’ve been very deprived of my love for dogs.

Do you have a favorite kind of dog?

No, my best dogs have been mutts.

What’s the last piece of art that you engaged with?

It was a painting made by a chimpanzee called Joe who was rescued from a circus. I met with him on his way to [the sanctuary] Save the Chimps ( in Florida. I also have art made by a rhino who loves painting. She uses her upper lip. I also have art made by a parrot, who uses his beak. I’m trying to get art made by a dog. If you want a good laugh Google “painting dog and trump” ( I don’t have to tell you what happens. You can have a good laugh for yourself.

What’s the last video you looked at on YouTube?

It was one of the animal ones. I got distracted from email. The last one I loved watching was a cat playing with a coyote. Google “coyote plays with cat.” It’s absolutely phenomenal. The other thing to Google is “octopus and clam shell.” There is several of them and you probably have to watch a few to get to the right one. The octopus takes empty clam shells on its arms and carries them walking across the ocean floor. Then when they get to the place where they want to be and there are no rocks, which they need to hide, they put one-half of the shell on the ground and squeeze themselves into it and put the other half on the top. They make a house.

Animal videos have become a pillar of the internet. Why do you think they’re so popular?

They’re very popular yet at the same time there’s terrible cruelty and slaughter. Animals are becoming extinct. We love some animals and animals that are just as intelligent and have personality and the same feelings of pain, we put into these horrendous factory farms and treat them as though they’re just objects without feelings and eat them. And it’s destroying the planet. Huge areas of habitat are destroyed to grow the grain. Masses of fossil fuel is used to take the grain to the animal and the animal to the slaughter and the meat to the table. The animals produce huge amounts of methane, which is the second most horrible greenhouse gas that’s leading to climate change.

You’ve seen a lot in your life on this planet. What’s one thing you thought would happen by 2017 that hasn’t?

It’s really the other way around. The things that have happened are the things I never thought would happen like the state of politics in so many countries. I was never really thinking much ahead but I think it’s shocking knowing what’s happening in the U.S., the UK, and Germany and the rise of nationalists and white supremacists and the terrible discrimination certainly in the U.S. but also in the UK; the mass shootings that are all over the place, the increase of terrorist activities, the wars that are going on around the world, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is continually getting bigger which is leading to a bunch of anger and unrest. The world is seeming to get worse, yet is more aware of the problems. I think there are more people wanting to help and more people that would help if they knew what to do. All around the world, there are incredible people doing wonderful things. It’s very heartwarming to see, like in Puerto Rico where the people are helping each other and pooling their resources and bartering. When humans are faced with disaster, they can become very heroic and it’s very sad to think, do we need disaster to bring out the heroic side of man? Is that what we need to come to a better world where head and heart work in harmony? This is why I’m concentrating on young people and developing our Roots & Shoots program and growing it wherever I go.

Observe the butterflies of Paris in their natural habitat: