Dr. Jane Goodall is a giant in her field. But in person she’s a slight woman with a quiet voice and a commanding presence.
She’s also full of surprises. Goodall, famous for her research into the social structures of wild chimpanzees, says she’s open to the possibility that Bigfoot exists.
“I guess I’m romantic,” Goodall said during an interview with KUOW Tuesday. “I don’t want to disbelieve.”
Goodall said she’s heard many stories from people who have no reason to lie about a Sasquatch sighting. And that makes her believe.
“It’s bizarre that we’ve never found any remains,” Goodall said. “Maybe it’s a spiritual creature. The closest I come when I think about ‘what could it be’ is like the remnant of Neanderthals.”
On a visit to rural Ecuador, Goodall asked her translator to ask local hunters a question.
“All I said was, ‘Ask if he’s seen a monkey without a tail.’ I didn’t say anything more than that … four of those hunters said, ‘Oh yes, we’ve seen a monkey without a tail. It’s about six foot tall and it walks upright.’”
As for the appeal of these kinds of myths, Goodall said the prospect of discovering something new is exciting.
“I think to have an element of mystery in life is very, very important,” she said.
Goodall is focused on possibilities, not what’s impossible. That may come from spending much of her career upending expectations.
Goodall’s discovery that chimps use and modify tools was groundbreaking in the 1960s. Until that point, researchers assumed that toolmaking was uniquely human.
She made that discovery as a young woman with no college education. Goodall had been studying chimps with anthropologist Louis Leakey for about two years when he told her it was time for her to get a degree.
“He said, ‘Jane, I won’t always be around to get money for you. You will have to get a degree to get your own money,” Goodall told a small crowd gathered for a Seattle Foundation function Tuesday night.
Despite not having a bachelor’s degree, Goodall enrolled as a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge.
“I got to Cambridge, and all of these professors that I was nervous of, some of them told me that I’d done everything wrong,” Goodall said.
Goodall was told she’d committed some of the worst academic sins in her research, including naming the chimpanzees instead of numbering them. And she talked about the chimps having emotions and personalities.
“That was the height of anthropomorphic sin, attributing human characteristics to non-human animals,” Goodall said.
She learned to write in a more scientific way but continued to call the chimps by names. And she continued to note their emotions and personalities.
Goodall’s deep love of animals is a driving force throughout all of her work.
“I popped out of the womb loving animals,” Goodall said.
There weren’t many women scientists when Goodall was young, but she wanted to be a naturalist. Goodall said some people laughed at her when she said she wanted to go to Africa and write about animals.
She credits her mother for supporting and nurturing her interest in animals during childhood. Goodall said there were many times when her mother could have squashed the instincts of a small scientist.
The time she hid in a hen house for more than four hours so she could find out where eggs came from, for example.
“You can imagine how worried my mother was,” Goodall said. “They’d even called the police. And yet, when she saw me running towards the house, instead of getting angry – ‘how dare you go off without telling us. Don’t you dare do it again’ – she sat down to hear the wonderful story of how a hen lays an egg.”
Now 83 years old, Goodall still remembers the advice her mother gave to her when she was young.
“If you really want this thing, you’re going to have to work really hard,” Goodall said. “Take advantage of opportunity and don’t give up … I wish mum was alive to know how many people have come up to me or written to me and said, ‘Jane, I want to thank you. You taught me that because you did it, I can do it too.’”
She believes that the future of the planet is in the hands of every individual – not just local and federal governments.
"I want everybody to understand that as an individual each one of us makes a difference,” she said. “We make some impact on the planet every single day. We have a choice what sort of impact will we make, and we need to start thinking about the consequences of the small choices we make."