Dr. Jane Goodall is known the world over as a chimps expert. but over the course of many decades, the British scientist’s extensive research has made her a prominent environmentalist and humanitarian as well. Among her many distinctions and titles is being named the first-ever ambassador for Disneynature, the Walt Disney Label behind the upcoming nature documentary Bears.
“The Disneynature team is honored to have Dr. Jane Goodall as our official ambassador, inspiring others to take part in the world of Bears – which is our shared world – and to make a difference,” Alan Bergman, President, The Walt Disney Studios, said. “Jane has had an impact on countless lives—human and animals alike. She speaks from her heart for all living things, championing the next generation’s pursuit in protecting our planet.”
Between promoting her Roots & Shoots environmental outreach program, traveling, fundraising, and celebrating her 80th birthday on April 3, Goodall spoke to EW about her secret to aging gracefully, her experience traveling to Alaska for the filming of Bears, and details for next year’s birthday plans.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about being a Disney ambassador.
JANE GOODALL: I think I approached them about it, actually. I care about making these films that families will go [see], helping people understand the importance of conserving various creatures. We all know that so many animal species are becoming endangered and you know, being destroyed even as we speak. The environment, the animals need all the help they can get. That’s why I’ve done not just scientific research, but written books, to hopefully engage the general public in a better understanding of what’s going on. And, of course, right from the beginning, that’s why we’ve been making documentaries about the chimps’ behavior. It’s a very good partnership.
I heard you spent time on the set of Bears in Alaska. What was that like?
Oh, that was magic. It was absolutely wonderful in Halo Bay. We were so close to the bears, and we met the two cubs that are in the film. And the scenery is so amazing. There’s a real feeling of wildness. To get to this place we had to go in a small plane and then a smaller plane so you felt you were going to the middle of nowhere. And the scenery is so utterly breathtaking. I love it, the wilder the better.
How do you mentally and physically get to a place where traveling to such extreme is manageable and fun?
Well, I think the secret is being passionate to get there. You have to be passionate about having a new experience. If you don’t have that, you probably won’t have a good time.
What’s the biggest misconception about bears?
Well, I think it’s a big misconception to think they are cute and cuddly. If people get too close, you can get hurt. And one of the big problems in some areas is that people leave garbage out and then bears become garbage raiders and can become a problem. The occasions of attack are so rare, and it’s usually when someone gets between the bears and their cubs or something like that.
What would you say, at this point, is the biggest misconception about you or your work?
That I’m [deceased zoologist] Dian Fossey. And so many people say, I loved your film, Gorillas in the Mist [the 1988 film starring Sigourney Weaver].
Is there anything you’d tell those people now?
Well, when I first began, I was told that I couldn’t talk about chimps having personalities or feelings, because those are unique to us. I knew that was wrong because of my dog, Rusty. So I stood firm.
Is the company of bears preferable to that of humans? It does seem tempting to spend time in the wild, without access to technology.
Definitely, yes. I always have to be out in nature. I don’t tweet, I don’t Twitter. Somebody in the institute does a blog for me and Twitter as well. I don’t do those things. And I don’t even have a cell phone.
Maybe that’s the secret to being so happy and healthy at age 80.
Yes. I’m not always happy, because there’s too many problems to solve, but part of the healthy thing is from not eating meat. I’m absolutely convinced of that.
What topic would you like Disney to tackle next in its nature documentary series?
Well, they’re already working on one about temple monkeys in India. But I want them to work on elephants,1 because elephants are disappearing so quickly due to terrible, terrible poaching.
While we’re on the topic of looking ahead, how do you want to celebrate your 81st birthday next year?
We’ve already planned it [Laughs]. We just did a fundraiser on my birthday so we can look after orphan chimpanzees in Congo whose mothers have been shot for the bush meet trade. We got more than our target so we’re going to be able to build up an endowment to keep the operation going. Next year, we want to hold a similar kind of event for Gombe. We need to work to improve the Gombe infrastructure and ensure that the long-term research and conservation efforts we’ve gone continue, especially for the people. We can’t just conserve animals if the people living around them are suffering.
Do you think for your next birthday we might see another book from you? Do you have another one in you?
No. you won’t see another book. No.
Are you done with books?
I’m not done with books. But 300 days a year on the road, and all these other things I’m asked to do don’t leave me time to think of another book. I will be writing, if I have any free moments, but I don’t want a publisher or deadline or anything.
What will you be writing about?
I’m not saying [Laughs]. It’s a secret.
It must be a real pleasure and privilege to have so much respect and popularity, really, than ever before. You and Gloria Steinem, who also just turned 80, are the “It” girls of 2014! How does that make you feel?
I feel very fortunate. I had various gifts. One gift was genetic, long-lived family. The other is, I suppose patience, patience without which I couldn’t have studied the chimpanzees and which you need if you’re going to work with animals. And then the other gift is communication. I can speak, it’s a gift which I work on, but it’s a gift.
I know people get inspired by what I have done, but what I would like is to keep working away to grow my Roots & Shoots program so that more young people can learn how to make a change in attitude that’s needed if we are going to save the planet. I want my great, great grandchildren to be able to see bears and elephants and chimpanzees.
Bears opens in theaters nationwide April 18, with a percentage of opening week sales going to the National Park Fondation. Check out the trailer below: