Fred Thompson, CEO of Jane Goodall Institute, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m president and CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Our mission is to inspire and empower people to take informed, compassionate action to make the world a better place for people, animals, and the environment. From this broad agenda have sprung three major program initiatives:
- Primate care and research: rescuing chimpanzees orphaned by the bushmeat trade and protecting them in sanctuaries, and continuing the research Jane Goodall started in 1960. We study the behavior of wild chimpanzees to learn more about them and to understand their survival needs. In recent years we’ve also helped pioneer noninvasive research methods (collecting fecal and urine samples) to help scientists study disease transmission patterns relevant to human health.
- Community-centered conservation in chimpanzee-range states throughout west and central Africa: helping provide people with sustainable economic livelihoods that offer alternatives to environmentally destructive behavior.
- Environmental and humanitarian education: inspiring people to take informed action on behalf of the environment and the planet’s inhabitants. We do this last initiative largely through our Roots & Shoots global youth program, which Jane began in 1991 with 16 Tanzanian students who were concerned about conservation problems and came to her for advice. Since then we’ve registered about 7,000 Roots & Shoots groups in 87 countries. They study problems in their communities, decide how they want to make a difference, and then take action.
Mission accomplished is a stable or increasing chimpanzee population across all chimpanzee-range countries, and a critical mass of people actively working toward a compassionate, peaceful world.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
What I really do is try to ensure that the institute has the resources necessary to fulfill its mission in each of its programmatic areas. The challenges are considerable. Many of our programs are conducted in areas that are highly unstable politically, and that are often struggling to attain a “civil society” as we have come to define the term. Specifically, my daily focus is on a number of related activities: fund-raising; generating public awareness, understanding, and support for our mission; building strong coalitions and partnerships with stakeholders, institutions, and governments that can help us maximize the effectiveness of our programs; and keeping our board members engaged and satisfied that we’re operating efficiently and productively. And, of course, trying to keep pace with Jane, who has more insights and brilliant ideas than just about anyone I can think of.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
My career prior to joining the institute was focused on changing behavior and perceptions. OK, I’m a recovering marketing guy. The world of marketing was excellent prep for my current position, which often requires formulating strategies and communications initiatives aimed at gaining empathy and understanding of our mission among prospective donors, and, on a program level, changing behaviors and public policies that are not consistent with sound conservation practices.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I have over 2,300 emails in my box at the moment (really) — probably close to 20 percent of them only scanned, not read. I’m blessed with an ability to read very quickly, so I find myself speed-reading messages before actually reading them in detail. I just don’t feel compelled to answer or read every email, since many are frankly not important, or redundant follow-ons to previous messages.
I have a strong aversion to managing by email (also to cleaning out my mailbox!). If it’s really important, I ask my staffers to care enough to phone me, or … walk down the hall and actually see me. That gets my attention. It’s always amazed me how people in offices right next to one another will persist in communicating vital information exclusively by email. I really hate it when someone confuses sending an email with taking ownership or accountability.
Most days, I get over 100 emails in several languages, so like many people, getting my attention is really problematic. To survive, I simply have to prioritize. And, it wouldn’t hurt to improve my French, or my Swahili ….
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Happily, most of the people I deal with are very civil, if not downright pleasant. That said, there are a lot of groups in the conservation space that seek to enlist Jane’s support. Most are totally above board and very straightforward about their intentions, and we’re pleased to lend our endorsement. Yet there are a surprising number of groups that are somewhat less than scrupulous in appropriating Jane’s name or likeness. By using her image in their communications, they hope to convey the impression that Jane and the institute are supportive of their missions. Monitoring the transgressors — separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak — requires a lot of vigilance, and can truly be a pain.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
This might surprise you. When I came to Washington, D.C., from a career on the for-profit side in New York City, I was very cynical about Washington bureaucracy, and in particular, government agencies. What I found was a bit of a revelation. While one might take partisan issue with political appointees, I discovered that the vast majority of career government employees — and that includes appointees — were genuinely committed to excellence and professionalism. Moreover, I found that many of these individuals and agencies, despite being impeded by impossibly complicated disbursement and reporting processes, were among the most resourceful and effective people we worked with. Who knew?
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where my father worked for a paper company. I currently work in Washington, and my wife has a career in New York City, so I commute back to New York City on weekends. I also have a weekend house in Connecticut, which allows me to spend a little time with nature.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I’ve been quite fortunate in that there haven’t been too many really bad days. One that comes to mind was a situation some years ago when I was informed without warning that my contract wouldn’t be renewed. Despite the fact that I had little respect for my superiors and wasn’t at all happy in the job, it still came as a real blow to my ego. From that moment forward, I started three successful businesses, sold them all and never looked back. The lesson? Always be looking ahead, and assume nothing. Real security is the marketable skills we bring to our respective employers, not merely the relationship or tenure we believe we have with an employer. And listen to your heart. If I had, I’d have never taken that job in the first place.
What’s been the best?
There have been many. Among them, not surprisingly, was the moment Jane offered me my current position. We were having lunch in the corner of a quiet garden in London and discussing what kind of person would be the ideal candidate for president of the institute. Jane suddenly turned to me and with her famously gentle intensity said, “Fred, I think you’re the person for this job, and I won’t be happy until you agree.” The rest, as they say, is history.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
That’s an easy one. The current administration’s arrogance in thinking that they can cloak bad environmental policy in deceptive rhetoric, and that no one will know the difference. People are smarter than they’re given credit for, and sooner or later, when the benefits of failed policy fail to trickle down and the consequences begin to mount, there’ll be a significant reckoning — for all of us, unfortunately.
Who is your environmental hero?
Obviously, Dr. Goodall. She balances practicality with knowledge and determination. She knows the importance of building alliances, yet still remains true to her mission. She’s amazing.
Jane recognized early on the importance of investing community members as true partners in conservation projects. When we began our community-centered conservation program TACARE in the villages around Gombe, the first order of business was meeting with local village leaders to consult with them about local needs. That’s why TACARE evolved to include health care and community development as well as sustainable forestry and agriculture, reforestation and erosion control. TACARE’s reproductive-health project trains local men and women as peer educators, who go back to their home communities and talk about the issues — the word isn’t coming from someone who might be seen as an interloper. This is the spirit of the whole program. It has to be locally owned and managed. Today TACARE is run entirely by Tanzanians.
We’re taking this community-centered model to a new project in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year.
What’s your environmental nightmare?
Indifference, ignorance, and deception — attributes that increasingly seem to characterize contemporary American dialogue on the topic of conservation and environmental stewardship.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
One of the lessons Jane emphasizes is the power of individuals to make a difference. I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by environmental problems and powerless to do anything about them. That’s nonsense. Each of us has the opportunity to make good environmental choices every day. Even small ones, multiplied over thousands or millions of people who feel empowered to make such choices, can have a significant impact.
This is the biggest lesson we try to instill in our Roots & Shoots program. If a group decides it wants to do something very ambitious, like organize an international awareness campaign on behalf of an endangered species, that’s wonderful. But the small projects — beach clean-ups, clothing drives, dog-walking at the local shelter — these are invaluable. You never know the ultimate impact of any one act of compassion or kindness.
What’s your environmental vice?
I don’t know if this would qualify as a vice, but I enjoy an occasional game of golf. And when I do, I always wonder what the land would have been like if it hadn’t been transformed into a golf course and chemically enhanced so my putts will be more accurate.
What are you reading these days?
My reading tastes are extremely eclectic. I’m reading the third volume of Norman Sherry’s Graham Greene bio, The United States of Europe by T.R. Reid (really interesting and scary), and a cheesy but entertaining Ken Follett novel. I always have at least three books going. One of my biggest phobias is being stranded on a plane or train without something to read.
What’s your favorite meal?
To Jane’s horror, I am not a vegetarian, although I’ve seriously cut back on my meat consumption to one portion every two weeks. My favorite meal is anything Indian or Thai. I love cruciform vegetables — broccoli or cauliflower in any form. Thanks, mom.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I have two. The first is Gombe National Park in Tanzania, site of Jane’s chimpanzee research. The park is a narrow, mountainous strip of land on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Its chimpanzee population and habitat are currently under extreme stress from encroaching farmers and refugees from nearby Rwanda and Congo across the lake. The view to the lake from the park’s rift peaks takes my breath away.
The second is Lake Ullswater in the English Lake District. I’m an Anglophile, and the seven-mile trek from one end of the lake to the other has always felt like a homecoming to me.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
It’s beginning to work together more effectively. Fragmentation is the enemy of critical mass, and critical mass, in my opinion, is essential to building real momentum and a committed consensus for dealing with environmental issues.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Amazingly, environmental issues are still viewed in this country as being radical and outside the mainstream. In Europe, it’s just the opposite. We need to get the environmental agenda (oracle of the obvious) on a populist footing.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
The environmental movement needs a smart public-relations campaign that includes guys in pinstripe suits as messengers (in addition to the Birkenstock wearers). The campaign needs to break down the stereotypes that environmentalists are somehow out of touch with middle America, and focus on the benefits of responsible environmental practices and policies — not just the problems.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18, it was the Stones, the Dead, and blues guys like Buddy Guy and Luther Allison. I still listen to those performers, but I also really like a lot of the new bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys. I’m a guitar player who never met a pentatonic riff he didn’t like.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
My absolute favorite is the recent BBC series, The Office. Tragi-comedy at its finest. I hate most of the reality shows, particularly The Apprentice. Donald Trump has given achievement a bad name. My favorite movies are The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, and Glengarry, Glen Ross, which was based on the David Mamet play of the same name.
What are you happy about right now?
My twin grandsons, Phillip and George, aged 19 months. I know it’s a cliche, but little kids put everything into perspective. We need to save the world for them. Over the holidays, I took them for a walk in the woods. Every 10 seconds or so, they stooped down to pick something up — a twig, a leaf, an acorn, it didn’t matter. They were totally fascinated.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Do something to help the environment every day. And urge your friends to do the same thing. Take action.
Me Fred, You Jane
How do you convince someone who lives in the U.S. and has never seen a chimpanzee outside the zoo about the importance of saving natural habitat in a place they’ll probably never see? — Name not provided
It’s true many people don’t “get it” and aren’t moved by the conservation arguments that we find so compelling — even the arguments that appeal to our self-interest. But you keep trying. You talk about the importance of rainforests not only for their aesthetic and spiritual value but because they are “nature’s pharmacy.” You talk about how much we still have to learn about chimpanzees and, by the way, did you know our study of Gombe chimpanzees is contributing to a greater understanding of AIDS and HIV?
More particularly, it’s my experience that even the most unconcerned individual feels some draw toward great apes. People just love to watch apes interacting, love to marvel at their similarities to humans, love to have their eyes opened even briefly to the complex and mysterious lives of our closest cousins. Great apes are wonderful ambassadors. That’s one reason why the research is so important.
Does the degree to which humans identify themselves as animals, and as part of nature, affect the degree to which we empathize and care for other animals? How can we foster that human-animal connection? — Joe Harmon, Centerville, Ohio
Start with Jane Goodall. She showed us that the line separating human from nonhuman is not nearly as stark as some like to think. I would recommend any of her books, but especially In the Shadow of Man, which details her early life at Gombe including her discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools, and The Ten Trusts, which edifies even as it challenges us to reconsider our relationship to nonhuman animals.
Have you had the opportunity to spend much time around primates yourself? Has it made you think about the environment, or humanity, differently? — Name not provided
I was at the institute for one month and was dispatched to our Congo sanctuary to intervene in a crisis. As soon as I arrived, I was introduced to two new orphans — a five-month-old gorilla and a six-month-old chimp. It was an amazing experience — truly moving. My time with chimpanzees has created a shift in the way I think about the natural world and animals. I understand on a more profound level the connection between “human” and “nonhuman.” Anyone who spends time with primates is going to conclude that they are extremely sentient beings with whom we share many traits.
Do people, such as members of JGI staff, live in the chimpanzee habitat areas of Gombe National Park in Tanzania? How does human interaction, and also human communicable disease, affect the chimpanzees? — Name not provided
How we interact with the chimpanzees has evolved with our understanding of their susceptibility to human diseases and as the research project has grown. Early on, Jane fed the chimpanzees bananas, but this is now strictly prohibited. Our researchers still live inside Gombe, so they can find the chimps early in the morning and follow them all day. We have strict distance rules; no one can be closer than seven meters. Staff members practice a week’s quarantine if they have been away. Tourists are allowed in the park, but they cannot stay too long or visit in large numbers. We anticipate the park will set down even stricter guidelines in the future.
What are some of the most crucial questions that still need to be answered in the field of primatology, and what is the institute doing to answer them? — Name not provided, Portland, Ore.
We’re pursuing many critical areas of inquiry at Gombe National Park.
- Culture: How much do chimp populations differ in habits such as tool use or social signals? How are such behaviors passed on? A recent study at Gombe showed that young females learn tool-use skills differently from young males.
- Importance of kinship — both maternal and paternal — in social behaviors such as cooperation and altruism: Can individuals identify their paternal relatives? Now that we use non-invasively collected DNA to determine paternity, we can explore whether fathers and offspring have special relationships and whether paternal kin avoid mating as do maternal kin.
- How does isolation of populations affect behavior? We are studying the small Mitumba community, which is squashed into one valley by people on one side and the much larger Kasekela community on the other whose males invade and sometimes attack and kill infants and young males. Not surprisingly, it appears that competition among individuals is higher in this community.
- How does habitat-change affect behavior? Through satellite-image studies, we know that vegetation cover has increased in the park over the last 40 years. Long-term records show that the chimps’ diet has likewise changed and that they have become more social, traveling and feeding in large sub-groups.
- How does mothering style affect the success of infants? We are studying this question using the long-term Gombe data.
- Disease: What effect does SIV (Simian immunodeficiency virus) have on chimps? Does studying the natural history of SIV help in understanding HIV? We are collaborating with Dr. Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama to improve our understanding of the evolution and transmission of SIVcpz (the chimpanzee strain).
- Aggression: Put bluntly, we want to understand why chimps sometimes attack and kill each other. What factors are related? Our scientists have published several articles addressing this issue.
On our website you will find a reference list of the papers we’ve published on many of these subjects.
Do you have a secure area under your organization’s control to protect the habitat of the chimpanzees? What control measures do you currently have in place? — Otto Martin, Seattle, Wash.
The only habitat that we control surrounds our Congo and Uganda sanctuaries, where we’ve been charged by the countries’ respective governments with protecting wildlife. We use fencing and eco-guards who patrol the perimeters and remove poachers’ snares. Gombe is under the control of the Tanzanian government, specifically TANAPA, or Tanzanian National Parks. But we do work with TANAPA to protect the chimpanzees in the park. In addition, in 1994 we established the TACARE project to address local human needs and reduce pressure on the forest.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job? — Name not provided
There are two that come to mind immediately. First, having the opportunity to work with someone as visionary and creative as Jane Goodall; it’s really a source of endless delight to watch her come up with so many creative perspectives on so many issues.
Secondly, and equally as important, is the satisfaction I get from knowing we are changing and improving lives in the areas where our programs are based.
Jane Goodall sounds like an amazing woman. Do you think your organization would be so successful had she not become somewhat of a celebrity for her chimp research? — Name not provided
There’s no question Jane’s celebrity is a huge asset to our organization and to the cause of animals and the environment in general. She is a tireless advocate for the natural world and is often able to command attention to environmental issues where others can’t.
How much of the millions of dollars you raise each year goes to protecting natural habitat for the chimps? Have you considered working with other funding organizations, such as TANAPA, to fence off the remaining rainforest in Gombe? — Name not provided
In 2003, 73 percent of our funds went to program costs and 27 percent to fund-raising and administrative costs. Of the $4.6 million we spent on programs, 21 percent went to wildlife research and 39 percent went to animal welfare and conservation. The other 40 percent went to education and communication, which means mostly our global Roots & Shoots program.
We work closely with TANAPA and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations in Tanzania and other countries. These partnerships are critical in leveraging program reach and effectiveness.
What are some of the most intense difficulties when dealing with the always-volatile governments of central Africa, and how do you get around them? — Joe Kuhn, Santa Barbara, Calif.
We work at the grassroots level as much as possible, forming partnerships with communities and village leaders, so lack of continuity is not as big a factor. We are embarking on a new project with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International to protect great apes and further sustainable development in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. We chose them because they have strong partnerships on the ground. It will be an exciting project. Keep checking our website for more details.
Do you know any good books related to chimpanzee behavior or their relationship with humans? — Name not provided
I also loved Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin.