Considered to be the world’s premier expert on chimpanzees, Jane Goodall has devoted her life to better understanding our primordial relatives and raising awareness of conservation and animal welfare issues. Her 45-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees has taken her from the London Zoo to the heart of the Gombe Stream National Park, where her groundbreaking work living among her subjects found that chimpanzees have individual personalities and are able to make tools -- discoveries that rocked the scientific community in the 1960s and '70s.
In 2008, German filmmaker Lorenz Knauer began documenting Goodall’s travels across continents, while she spoke to more than 300 audiences per year as the face of "Roots and Shoots" (an international network of young people devoted to conservation). Goodall offered man-made solutions to man-made environmental crises through her position as a United Nations Messenger of Peace. The resulting film, entitled "Jane’s Journey," premiered in Berlin on Aug. 26 (see trailer below).
For the second installment in our "Late Bloomers" series, the Huff/Post50 team caught up with the primatologist and asked for her words of wisdom.
What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you were growing up?
If you meet someone who disagrees with you -- has a different opinion -- the most important thing is to listen carefully to what they say, and keep an open mind. And maybe you’ll find that you say, "well gosh, I never thought of it like that. Maybe they do have a point there." When I was 26 I got a job at the London Zoo with a documentary film unit. When I got back from Africa after my first trip, there was a press conference at the London Zoo. My zookeeper friends said, "Jane, now you can talk about all these horrible conditions at the zoo." But then, by pure chance, I had dinner with a very wise man who had spent a lot of time in Africa. When I told him about this, I was met with a very long silence. He said, "Jane, why are you doing that?" And I said, "I want to help the chimps." And he said, "You do realize that the head of the London Zoological Society is a very famous and very wealthy man…do you really think he’s going to let you, a young woman without a degree, prove him wrong? You will make an enemy for life." So I said, "What do you think I should do?" And he said, "Just tell me the few things you think would make a difference." So I did, and in a few weeks those changes had been made.
Now that you’re over 50, what’s the one rule you feel you can break with impunity?
If you passionately believe in something and you understand it, then those silly "shoulds" or "should-nots" must be ignored. I've always been told that rules are there to break. The important thing is respect -- you have to respect other people, and if you're going to break a rule then do it in a respectable way.
What social or political cause are you most passionate about?
The biggest problem for me is that there isn't one problem -- everything is so interconnected in the world today. I'm passionate about the environment and I want to protect the environment so that my grandchildren can enjoy the same beauty that I did. And you can't work on behalf of the environment without thinking of people and improving their lives as well. I could devote myself to conservation and the rainforest and all that, but if we're not concerning ourselves with educating future generations, then there's no point to any of that.
What is your biggest regret?
My biggest regret is that my first husband and I couldn't make our marriage work. I think our divorce had an effect on our son. He's fine, but I think it did hurt him at the time, and I deeply regret that. We stayed friends and our son spent time with both of us. We often met, as my parents did, and we had a lot of respect for each other, but it would have been lovely for us to have stayed a family.
What is your biggest accomplishment?
Wherever I go -- and I'm really talking about places like South Korea and Vietnam and India -- I meet at least three people who say, "When I was 12 or 16, I read 'In the Shadow of Man,' and it made me think differently about animals." Chimpanzees have helped me share with the world that animals matter and that they have personalities and feelings. More and more people are beginning to think that way.
If you could say one thing to the next generation, what would it be?
One thing I’d say is that you, as individuals, matter. You didn't make the mess that you inherited, but don't for one single second think that what you think and say doesn’t matter -- because it does. You do matter. That's the most important thing for a young person to know.
If you could reincarnate as anyone or anything, what or who would it be?
First of all, I should say that I'm quite sure that when we die on this planet that it is not the end. I’m sure of that. I feel very strongly about that, having spent so much time alone in the Gombe forest. Reincarnation makes sense because there are so many people and if we’re not returning in some form than it must be quite crowded wherever these spirits are going (laughs). I can't believe that we have one chance to get it right. We don't give our children just one chance, so why would we have just one chance to be judged for eternity? I would love to be a dog in a really good home with freedom, living without a leash. I think that would be wonderful. I would never want to return as a chimp, they're far too much like us.WATCH: Trailer of "Jane's Journey" by German filmmaker Lorenz Knauer on Goodall’s cross-continental travel.