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Jane Goodall recalls her pioneering path to activism in San Diego Zoo podcast

Before she became the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees and a global conservation activist, Jane Goodall was a animal-loving little girl with a dream most people laughed at.

After reading a book about Tarzan when she was 10, Goodall decided she wanted to “grow up, go to Africa, live with wild animals and write books about them.”

While most people saw it as an impossible dream, particularly for a girl — “girls didn’t do that sort of thing,” she said — her mother was supportive and encouraged her to find a way. So when a school friend invited Goodall to visit her family in Kenya, she jumped at the chance, taking a boat trip that lasted nearly a month from England to Africa. She was 23.

Now 88, Goodall discusses her life in the latest episode of “Amazing Wildlife,” a San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance podcast that explores different animal species in half-hour segments. This week’s episode, which is available Friday, features a conversation between San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance CEO Paul Baribault and Goodall, who first met about 10 years ago.

Hosted by zoo staffers Rick Schwartz and Ebone Monet, the podcasts are a production of iHeartRadio and the zoo’s parent organization, and can be downloaded on the iHeartRadio App, Apple Podcasts or other podcast platforms. Since it began last November, “Amazing Wildlife” has been downloaded more than 250,000 times, according to iHeartRadio.

In their interview, Baribault leads Goodall to discuss how she came to travel to Africa and study chimps, and how she later became an activist. In introducing Goodall, who was in the U.K. for the recording, Baribault talks about his admiration for the conservation leader.

“Jane has been a great inspiration to me, my family and is someone I’ve had the unbelievable honor of being able to call a close friend for over a decade,” he says in the podcast. In 2021, Baribault became chair of the Jane Goodall Institute, an organization founded in 1977 that’s involved in community-centered conservation, research, advocacy and youth empowerment.

While in Kenya on her first visit in 1957, Goodall says, she met famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who headed a natural history museum there. He became her mentor and helped her begin studying chimpanzees in the wild in Gombe, Tanzania. Because officials were uneasy about her being there alone, her “amazing mother” stayed with her in camp the first four months, she tells Baribault.

Leakey chose her for the chimpanzee research, she says, because she had not yet gone to college and he wanted “a mind uncluttered by the very reductionist thinking” of scientists. But after two years, he encouraged her to pursue a doctorate in ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior, from Cambridge University.

Leakey wanted her work to be taken seriously by other scientists, she says in the podcast, so she no longer would be considered a “(National) Geographic cover girl.”

Goodall’s observations about chimpanzee intelligence, social dynamics and their use of tools — she noticed they would stick blades of stiff grass into termite holes to extract termites — was groundbreaking and changed the world’s understanding of the intelligence and emotions of animals.

After studying chimpanzees for decades, Goodall’s life took a major shift after she attended a 1986 conference in Chicago where speakers talked about the problem of deforestation. She recalls being shocked to hear how chimpanzee population numbers were plunging and forest habitat was being destroyed.

“I went to that conference as a scientist, and I left as an activist. I just knew I had to do something,” she tells Baribault in the podcast.

Goodall says she is inspired by the work people are doing around the world to try to save the planet from destruction and also by her institute’s “roots and shoots” program that helps young people become changemakers. Protecting the planet, she says, needs to become more important than short-term benefits. Goodall launched her own podcast in December 2020 called “Jane Goodall Hopecast.”

“We’ve got to try slow down climate change, we’ve got to slow down biodiversity loss, we’ve got to alleviate poverty because poor people will destroy the environment simply to live,” she says. “We need to understand the health of the planet and the animals on the planet and the humans on the planet are all interrelated — and if one part of that equation is sick, it is going to harm all the rest.”

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