In the early 1960s, a young British woman named Jane Goodall became the first and only human to be accepted into a chimpanzee community.
During her revolutionary research at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, Dr. Goodall and her chimpanzee family – among them, the famous chimps David Greybeard, Goliath, Flo and Fifi – changed much of what the world thought they knew about these amazing primates. Goodall’s groundbreaking chimpanzee studies include discoveries of tool use, carnivorous diets, a proclivity for violence and, most surprisingly, the ability to form personalities and emotional attachments just as humans do.
These fascinating aspects of primate society are among the many astonishing behaviors captured in the Disneynature documentary “Chimpanzee,” which is available today on Blu-ray Combo Pack and XFINITY On Demand. Narrated by actor Tim Allen, the film follows the development of a baby chimpanzee name Oscar. However, the movie takes an unexpected turn when Oscar loses his mother Isha during a raid by a rival gang of chimps. Now alone in the unforgiving African rainforest, Oscar faces a bleak future until he is unexpectedly adopted by grown male named Freddy.
For every Blu-ray Combo Pack and On Demand purchase of “Chimpanzee” this week, Disneynature will donate a portion of the sales to the Jane Goodall Institute as a part of its “See ‘Chimpanzee,’ Save Chimpanzees” promotion. The donated funds will help conserve chimp habitats, educate African youth and provide care for orphaned chimpanzees.
I recently spoke with Dr. Goodall, 78, about her legendary career, the chimps behind “Chimpanzee” and her ongoing work to save one of the world’s most fascinating species.
David Onda: As someone who’s worked so closely with chimpanzees, what about this film struck you when you saw it?
Dr. Jane Goodall: I think one of things is the quality and the patience and dedication of the filmmakers themselves. That is superb quality — and the conditions they worked in were really, really difficult. And to be able to capture this big male adopting an orphan and capture those tender things on film was fabulous. The sequence of the inter-community attacks are stunning.
Onda: On the Blu-ray extras, the filmmakers say that when Oscar’s mother died, they thought they had lost their entire film.
Dr. Goodall: They were prepared to give up. They said they’d wasted nine months and spent lots and lots of money and now the whole premise, which was to follow the development of an infant, was over. Instead of which, they got an amazing film.
Onda: Can you give me an idea of just how rare it is for a male like Freddy to take on an orphan?
Dr. Goodall: It’s not totally unique. We haven’t had an adult male take on an infant at Gombe. We’ve had older brothers look after little infant siblings. We’ve had a 12-year-old unrelated male — that’s sort of late adolescence — looking after an unrelated infant. And there’s one example of all the other chimp studies I’ve read where an adult male adopted an infant. So it’s not common. Many of the males have almost, like, an inborn tendency to show caring parental behavior, which is certainly charming.
Onda: One of the sweetest scenes of the film is when Isha kisses Oscar on the head. We often forget how human-like chimpanzees are.
Dr. Goodall: It’s not surprising when you think that the difference, genetically, is just over one percent. It’s a very close genetic similarity, so the fact that some of their behavior is so similar shouldn’t really be surprising. Their postures and gestures — they’re identical. You see embracing, holding hands, patting on the back, swaggering, throwing, showing off.
Onda: When you look back at all your years working with chimpanzees, can you point to any one thing and say, “That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen a chimp do?”
Dr. Goodall: It’s awfully difficult after all this time. But I do remember [a time] with my great friend David Greybeard, the old male that first accepted me, when I held out a nut for him on my hand and he didn’t want it. He turned and looked in my eyes and took it, dropped it and then very gently squeezed my fingers, which is how chimpanzees reassure each other. So there was a perfect understanding. He knew I meant well offering him this nut and I knew that he understood my motives. It was incredible, that communication.
Onda: When you first discovered that chimps have violent tendencies and, as it shows in the movie, they hunt colubus monkeys and war amongst communities, did you feel a sense of disappointment?
Dr. Goodall: Yes. I had thought they were like us, but nicer. The sad commentary on this is that, once I realized they had this violent tendency in their nature, it made them even more like us than I thought before. It’s a sad commentary on human nature, isn’t it?
Onda: When people purchase “Chimpanzee” this week and Disney, in turn, makes a donation to the Jane Goodall Institute, what will be done with that money to help the chimps?
Dr. Goodall: First of all, it will help develop our youth program. It’s the young people getting to understand about nature and what we’re doing to nature. That is, to me, one of the most crucial things. But it will also help us to care for over 150 orphaned chimpanzees — little Oscars who don’t have anyone to adopt them in the wild. They’ve been confiscated from the market places and the hunters and given to us to care for for the next 70 years, basically. And it’s very expensive. It’s right in the heart of the bushmeat trade and Congo-Brazzaville, so we’re always desperate with trying to enlarge the place. We’ve got a beautiful series of islands we’re going to put them — not quite into freedom — but a much, much better situation. We’re also searching for a place in the wild where they might, some of them, be allowed to be released completely into the wild.
Onda: We all know about your love for chimps. Is there a second animal you’re particularly fascinated with?
Dr. Goodall: If you want to know, my favorite animal in the whole world is a dog. But that’s not the type of animal you meant, probably. In the wild, the animal that I was most fascinated with was the hyena. Absolutely. I wrote a book called “Innocent Killers,” and there’s something about hyenas that’s quite extraordinary. They’re amazing. But I love them all. I just wish I had 20 lives and I could study 20 different creatures out in the wild. Wolves and mongooses — and we study baboons at Gombe. There’s just an unlimited wealth out there. So, any young people who want to go into animal behavior, my goodness, they have a choice. I wish them luck.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.