You could almost hear the sounds of Jane Goodall's name being scratched off bucket lists as admirers got to meet the world-famous animal rights activist and environmentalist at an exclusive benefit held in Ottawa on Saturday night.
The special event, called In the Company of Jane, had a definite "pinch me, I'm dreaming" feel to it. It took place at 50 Sussex, one of Ottawa’s best-kept venue secrets. The building, located along the scenic Ottawa River, right next to the Rideau Falls, serves as the dazzling new headquarters for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS).
It was an elegant but relaxed evening, held in support of the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. The global wildlife and environment conservation organization has 34 locations around the world, with Canada's office being one of the most effective in fundraising.
“This is an epic night in Ottawa,” Canadian Geographic photographer-in-residence Michelle Valberg said enthusiastically as she welcomed some 85 attendees to the reception, where early-bird tickets sold for $500 and regular tickets for $750. Valberg was the driving force behind organizing the evening.
Goodall was in town as part of a series of events to raise money for her institute. The British-born expert on wild chimpanzees has devoted most of her life to studying, and now protecting, them. Her field research on chimps in Africa has changed the way we understand animals, and even ourselves.
On Saturday night, she was presented with the prestigious RCGS Gold Medal by CEO John Geiger in recognition of "her transformative role in environmental awareness and activism in Canada and throughout the world."
Not only was Goodall gracious in accepting her medal, but she was also playful. "If I'm an ordinary human being I would say, ‘Thank you, what a great honour’. But supposing I am a chimpanzee, I would be much more demonstrative," she said before mimicking a chimp's hooting sounds of happiness, and then giving Geiger a hug.
Sharon Bosley House, owner of event company Avant-Garde Designs, worked her creative magic to bring a natural, earthy feel to 50 Sussex. In charge of the fabulous food was one of Ottawa’s top catering companies, Thyme & Again, represented by owner Sheila Whyte, business partner Michael Moffatt and executive chef Tim Stock. They added some of chimpanzees' favourite munchies to the menu, from figs and apricots to pomegranate seeds and kiwis to plantain hummus.
Also supporting the event was Carole Saad, vice president of events for 50 Sussex and president of LouLou Lounge Furniture Rental.
There was a sense of excitement and awe that lingered in the air that night. “It’s Jane freaking Goodall,” Sanjay Shah, president of ExecHealth, told OBJ.social soon after he arrived to the reception with his wife, Dr. Bella Mehta. “I’ve been geeking out all day. She’s a real icon.”
Steve Williams, a partner at law firm Emond Harnden, was deserving of the title of best son-in-law. Ever. He bought tickets to take his wife, Dr. Melissa Forgie, and her parents, to celebrate his mother-in-law's 88th birthday.
Goodall was calm and thoughtful while also passionate, funny and eloquent as she touched on some of the highlights of her nearly six decades-long career. She spoke about the urgent need to better protect our planet. She also expressed her hope for a better future due to the global power of youth, the indomitable spirit of human beings and the new advancements being made in clean energy technologies.
At age 85, Goodall travels the world 300 days a year to give lectures on the environmental crisis. “The older you get, the closer you are to wherever the end is, so you have to speed up,” explained Goodall of her gruelling schedule.
She credited her mother for giving her the confidence to pursue her childhood dream of going to Africa to live with and write books about wild animals. “Everybody laughed at me and said I couldn’t do that because we didn’t have money, Africa was far away and, anyway, I was just a girl. But, my mother said, ‘If you really want something like this, you’re going to work really hard to take advantage of the opportunity, and don’t give up’."
What keeps Goodall motivated to continue with her lectures are audience members who later tell her they've been inspired by her talks to “do their bit” in making the world a better place.
One of the stories she shared was about the first documentary done on her research, called Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, in the 1960s. It was made without consulting her and contained so many inaccuracies that the narration had to be re-recorded. The only problem was: the narrator, Orson Welles, had broken his leg in a skiing accident in the Alps. Not a problem; they got him to do it from the hospital in Switzerland.
Goodall posed for photos with guests and, later, happily answered questions during a Q&A. As well, she jumped up to help with the auction by making sure the framed artwork got paraded around the room for everyone to see. She also agreed to autograph the sold art for the winning bidders.
One of the artworks, done by a chimpanzee, sold for $1,800 while another went for $4,000 to Ryan Shackleton, director of Know History, an Ottawa-based firm that provides historical research services. He was thinking of his 20-month-old daughter when he bought it, hoping to eventually pass it along to her to inspire the kind of wisdom that was shared with the crowd that night.
Elizabeth Kilvert, owner of The Unrefined Olive, got in a tense bidding war for a unique trip to Uganda and Rwanda to hang with the chimps and gorillas. The other bidder eventually backed down and Kilvert bought the dream trip for $5,700, as a way of celebrating her 50th birthday.
There was a trip to the Canadian arctic, with two flights donated by First Air. It sold for $3,000 to lawyer Derek Nicholson, partner at Beament Hebert Nicholson LLP.
Michelle’s photographic polar bear print caught the eye of Emmy Award-winning, Toronto-based television producer and director J.J. Johnson. He didn't stop bidding until it was his, for $4,000.
Valberg first travelled to the Arctic 12 years ago and has been back almost 60 times since. “The people, wildlife and landscape took hold of my heart and soul, and I was captivated,” she told the room earlier in the evening. “Through visual storytelling, it became my mission to the share the North with the South. Not only did I want to showcase the Arctic wildlife and landscape but also the people, the Inuit.
“I hope that I can reveal, through imagery, what we have to lose if we don’t take better care of our climate, and this will always be my mission,” said Valberg.