When did you first convince people that you wanted to go to Africa and study animals as a young woman?
People say it was the gift of [plush chimpanzee] Jubilee when I was 1½ that triggered my love of animals and why I studied chimps. Absolutely not true. I did love him — I took him everywhere. He was big and he was special, but I would never have dreamed of studying chimpanzees. Nobody had. It was too exotic. It just happened by chance. Or maybe it was meant to happen.
I got the opportunity when a friend invited me for a holiday. And before I could go, I had to earn the money because we didn't have any money. When I first went to Africa I was 23. And 23 then was more like a 16-year-old today: We were very naive. Young people didn't go traveling off to other countries the way they do today. So it was pretty amazing that Mum let me go off on my own on a boat; I think it was extraordinary of her.
So you made it to Kenya. What did you see there, and how did that impact you?
Well, I met Louis Leakey. Somebody said, "If you care about animals, you should meet Louis." And he gave me a job in the natural history museum. He was impressed by how much I'd learned about animals from reading, reading, reading, reading — and offered me the chance of studying chimps.
You started doing your research in a way that was roundly mocked at the time, giving the chimpanzees names and attributing personalities. How did you have the strength of conviction to know that what you were doing made sense?
Because I had wise teachers when I was a child. My dog taught me that we weren’t the only beings with personality, mind and emotion. So I knew I was right. And my mother taught me: If you meet somebody with a different opinion, listen to what they have to say and maybe understand a little bit better why they think the way they think and maybe learn from them something you never thought of before. If you still think you’re right, or righter than they are, then have the courage of your conviction. So, wise mum.
How long did it take for the chimps to stop running away from you?
Well, it varied, but the soonest was about five months.
I didn’t realize it was so long. Did you have moments where you thought it wasn’t going to work?
Well, I knew, if I had time I could do it. I was absolutely, totally confident. But would I have time? We only had money for six months. So thank God [chimpanzee] David Greybeard came along. He was the one — even after four months, he began letting me get closer. He was different from the others. And then, because he accepted me, I think that helped the others to accept me, too.
Do you think he knew how grateful you were?
No, of course not. [Laughs.]
Pretty early on you made the groundbreaking discovery of toolmaking [among the chimpanzees].
When I saw David Greybeard using and making tools, that was the breakthrough. It was towards the end of the fourth month, the beginning of the termite season. I knew that scientists said that humans and only humans used and made tools. That's how [our species was] defined. So that brought in National Geographic and a filmmaker to prove that what I was saying was actually true. Because a lot of scientists said, "Oh, she's just a girl. She hasn't been to college. She's straight out from England. Why should we believe anything she says?"
So with National Geographic proof and their imprimatur, when did people in the broader scientific community start coming around?
Even when I went to Cambridge, even when I got my PhD, I still didn't feel that most of them accepted it. Some did; I had some great supporters. But it wasn't until I wrote that book — "The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior" — because to do that, I had to go back and do all the stuff I would have done as an undergraduate. And so then I felt able to face the scientists, particularly the scientists in their labs doing medical research. But, you know, thank goodness I got the PhD — Leakey was quite right to say I needed it.
Did you not think so at the time?
I was scared. I hadn't been to college. We couldn't afford it. And to be told I have to go and do a PhD without an undergraduate degree? And then to be told I had done everything wrong. My worst critic was the Number One ethologist in the U.K. One of the top three in Europe: Professor Robert Hinde. He was my sternest critic until he came to Gombe. Then he said he learned more in two weeks than all the rest of his life before. So then he turned around, and he was the one who helped me to think in a scientific way, to think logically, how to express myself in a scientific way. And that stood me in good stead ever since.
What traits do you think have served you best in your work?
Being obstinate. Being very determined. Not wanting to be walked and trampled on. And passion. Caring. Truly caring.
And would that be with both chimps and with humans?
Well, I was never mad at the chimps. [Laughs.] But patience. I suppose patience is another quality.
Can you talk about your transition from scientist to activist?
I’m traveling around the world now, no longer studying chimpanzees, and trying to tell people what’s happening in the world, the mess that we’ve made and the fact that unless we all get together to help the environment we all share, then it may be too late. The window of time is closing. And it’s not enough just to wave placards and say, “Climate change!” The point is to take actual action. To do your bit.
I mean, there was a little boy in Burundi. He was 7 — little African boy. And I talked at his school. He came up to me afterwards, and he said, “If I pick up a piece of litter every day, I’ll make a difference, won’t I?” I said, “Yes. You’ll make a huge difference.” And I said, “Well, suppose you persuade 10 of your friends to do the same?” He said, “Wow. That would really make a difference.” And I said, “Then each of your 10 friends could choose 10 friends.” He said, “Hoo. We’d change everything.”
My job now is to try and help people understand every one of us makes a difference. And cumulatively, wise choices in how we act each day can begin to change the world. The program that we began to save the chimpanzees of Gombe began by working with local people, so they could find livelihoods that did not necessitate destroying the environment. We’ve got the same program throughout the whole chimp range in Tanzania. And the reason it’s working is that people begin to understand it’s not just saving the environment for wildlife, but for their own future. So we have to learn to think in a different way. Being angry and pointing fingers, you won’t get anywhere. You just have to reach people’s hearts. And the best way I know is to tell stories.
Do you think that’s why you’ve been effective at working with people on different sides of issues?
You know, during the war in Britain, we hated the Nazis. So after the war, I had an uncle who was out in one of the sectors of now-defeated Germany, and he found a family that I could live with because Mum wanted me to understand that just because the Nazis and Hitler did terrible things, Germans weren’t bad people. That was amazingly wise of her, wasn’t it? Some of my best friends are Germans. We sometimes say, “Our fathers were killing each other — how crazy is that?” So trying to understand that no matter what nationality, language, culture, we’re all the same family.
If you go out there being aggressive and pointing a finger, you don’t get anywhere. If you watch two people begin talking from opposing sides, and then one gets a little bit finger-pointy, you can then see the eyes of the other one turning in as he or she tries to refute what’s being said. And in the end, neither listens to the other. And they get more and more aggressive, and nothing’s accomplished at all. Except possibly to make it worse. I got lots of opposition from animal rights people for even talking to the people in the labs. But if you don’t talk to people, how can you ever expect they’ll change?
This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” was released this fall.