Jane Goodall‘s love for animals started long before her first encounter with a chimpanzee.
The legendary primatologist tells PEOPLE she was “born loving animals” and after reading Tarzan of the Apes at just 10 years old, she knew she had found her calling.
“I decided I would have to go to Africa and live with animals and write books about them,” she says. “Eventually I was invited by a school friend and met the famous anthropologist, paleontologist Louis Leakey and he was the one who said would I go study not just any animal but the ones most like us, the chimpanzee.”
But Goodall, 83, admits that working with chimpanzees was not her first choice of animal to study.
“I was in love with elephants,” she says. “It was just that [Leakey] offered me chimps, which fit into what I see as the mission of my life.”
She says it was easier to get scientists to “change their attitude” about animals when she presented her work with chimpanzees because they are biologically more like humans than any other animal.
“Scientists were saying, ‘There’s a sharp line dividing us from the other animals. We’re superior, we’re separate,’ ” she explains. “But other animals are intelligent. Other animals have feelings and emotions.”
Goodall now works to help educate the younger generation about animal and environmental conservation and compassion through her program Roots and Shoots.
“Its main message is that every single one of us makes a difference,” she says. “Everyone has a role to play.”
Roots and Shoots started in 12 countries but has already expanded to over 98 countries — and it isn’t done growing. “I want it to go everywhere,” says Goodall.
Goodall also serves as an ambassador for Disneynature films, and says the latest documentary Born in China is one of the most important yet.
“It’s so important because it’s showing to people that there is this beautiful wilderness area in China, these amazing animals,” she says. “In China, they are now trying to protect these areas.”
Born in China hits theaters April 21. Ticket sales from the opening week of the film will benefit the World Wildlife Fund and help protect wild pandas and snow leopards in China.
“I’m gradually starting to realize this impact is bigger than I ever could have dreamed it would be,” she says of her long-spanning career. “When you’re brought into this life you’re given certain gifts and you have to use them.”