What's next for Jane Goodall? An immersive spectacle in Tanzania.

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What's next for Jane Goodall? An immersive spectacle in Tanzania.
Jane Goodall, the groundbreaking primatologist and environmental activist, at the Hotel Elysée in New York on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. “Dr. Jane’s Dream,” an immersive spectacle by former Walt Disney Imagineers and African artisans celebrating Goodall and her work, is taking form in a cultural complex in Tanzania. (Erinn Springer/The New York Times)

by Ralph Blumenthal

NEW YORK, NY.- Are you ready for the Jane Goodall Experience?

It’s getting ready for you.

“Dr. Jane’s Dream,” an immersive spectacle by former Walt Disney Imagineers and African artisans celebrating the groundbreaking English primatologist and environmental activist, is taking form in a cultural complex in Tanzania.

Its debut, in the safari gateway of Arusha, between Mount Kilimanjaro and Serengeti National Park, is planned around World Chimpanzee Day, July 14, 2025 — 65 years since Goodall, then a 26-year-old novice researcher chaperoned by her mother, landed at the Gombe forest reserve to begin her field work for anthropologist Louis Leakey.

Within months she upended scientific doctrine by observing an adult male chimp she called David Greybeard raid a termite mound, stripping leaves from a hollow branch to extract and eat the insects. The making and using of tools was long thought a hallmark of humans.

Since then, the nonstop Goodall, who turned 90 on April 3 during a typically exhausting American tour, has been lionized (or aped) in books and movies. She’s a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and a United Nations Messenger of Peace. And champion of a global crusade of young people and celebrities from Prince Harry to Leonardo DiCaprio fighting deforestation, climate change, pollution and factory farming.

Her nonprofit Jane Goodall Institute in the U.S. is projected to raise $30 million this year, with additional millions raised by the other 25 chapters worldwide, a spokesperson said. Her youth movement, Roots and Shoots, is operating in 70 countries.

But she has never been presented like this — in an immersive tribute by African artists and Disney veterans. Disney has called Imagineering the “blending of creative imagination with technical know-how.” But “Dr. Jane’s Dream” is not a Disney project; rather, it taps into storytelling techniques by some of its former innovators.

At “Dr. Jane’s Dream,” Goodall said in New York last week, “There’s a tent where my mom and I were and two little peepholes looking out into the world of the chimps,” Visitors will be challenged. “They go into this dream world and are going to have to investigate. It’s like an adventure.”

Goodall is now on one of her globe-circling jaunts that keep her on the road some 300 days a year. She flew in from the West Coast at the end of March and after Canada and a few days back home in her native Bournemouth on the English Channel, she is booked to Europe, Africa, Australia, South America and Asia.

Since Jan. 12, she calculated, she has slept in her own bed five nights.

On April 2, Goodall was on East 54th Street at the Hotel Elysée with its Monkey Bar — a coincidence, she insisted — along with the fact that her top floor suite had been the last abode of playwright Tennessee Williams, who died there in 1983 at 71, choking on the cap of a bottle of barbiturates.

Her latest project, “Dr. Jane’s Dream,” is unfolding at the Arusha Cultural Heritage Center, opened in 1994 by Saifudin Khanbhai, whose great-grandfather from India established a trading outpost in British colonial Tanganyika in the 1800s.

Khanbhai offered Goodall a location on the 5-acre heritage site, amid a complex of half a dozen buildings and four huts displaying the work of some 3,000 artists and jewelers and showcasing the region’s unique blue gemstone, Tanzanite.

“We just connected so well,” Khanbhai said in an interview. “I’m a man of chemistry. If it works it works.”

Her building’s shell of round drumlike forms is already up, with the interior exhibits coming over the next year.

“Basically, she is getting the deep storytelling, design and immersiveness of Disney Imagineering because — well, we adore Jane,” said Tom Acomb, an architect with his own firm, AOA, and a former Imagineer who teamed up with colleagues including Joe Rohde, creator of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park in Florida, to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars of free design services for “Dr. Jane’s Dream.”

But Acomb said, “Disney has nothing to do with the project, nor is any technology of theirs deployed in any way. What is in the mix is a process — the process that was unique to Disney Imagineering’s ability to tell a story.” He said they still did support work for Disney when called upon.

The idea, Rohde explained, was to create “much more of an experience center than an expository center.”

“What we’re trying to do,” he added, “is sort of take all the feelings and emotions that made Jane Goodall Jane Goodall and transfer that into a series of objects and encounters.”

It was not so much “about” Goodall, he noted, as “feeling her.”

He said it would feature a kiosk with a recording of Goodall translating chimp cries into English; a ceiling of 800 leaflike tiles painted by various African artists, models of animals wrapped in information about them (requiring close study by visitors, just as Goodall had to closely study her subjects); and elaborately carved and painted tree trunks in a style of artmaking called Makonde.

And, of course, the famous termite mound.

“Rather than just telling people that this is the way chimps fish for food,” Rohde said, “we want to compel people to do something like what the chimps do — use these little probes to stimulate something within the termite mound. You’re not learning about what chimps do — you’re learning what they do.

“It’s a very Jane Goodall thing.”

To keep “Dr. Jane’s Dream" maintainable locally, it will limit fancy technology, and allow for improvisation, Rohde said.

“It’s going to be what it becomes as the artists make it.”

Born in London in 1934, Goodall grew up cherishing animals, even, as a not-yet-2-year-old, taking earthworms to bed with her. Her mother, Vanne, convinced her that the worms would do better in the ground. At 4-1/2 she lost herself in the henhouse trying to figure out where eggs came from.

Her parents separated when she was little and, amid Nazi bombings, she relocated with her mother and younger sister to her grandmother’s home in Bournemouth. The first book she read was “The Story of Dr. Dolittle,” about a country physician who talks to the animals. Another early book, “Tarzan of the Apes “ left her jealous, she remembers: “He marries the wrong Jane.”

Set on visiting Africa, Goodall saved her waitressing money and, at 23 in 1957, sailed to Kenya where, though lacking a college degree, she sought out Leakey who with his wife, Mary, was excavating early human fossils in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

One day at the site, out walking with another assistant, Gillian Trace, and the Leakeys’ two protective Dalmatians, Toots and Bottom-Biter, Goodall noticed they were being trailed by a young male lion. The dogs, off leash, were busy chasing a mouse.

“Gillian wanted to hide in the vegetation at the bottom of the gorge,” she recalled last week. “I said no, the lion would know where we are, we won’t know where the lion is. We have to climb up on the plains so the lion could see us. I had this firm belief that animals wouldn’t hurt us if we are not a threat to them.”

Goodall said she was less worried about the lion than coming back to Mary Leakey without the Dalmatians.

Afterward, Louis Leakey, impressed, offered her a job studying chimpanzees for clues to man’s earliest ancestors. She became one of his three ape mentees, “the trimates,” who also included Dian Fossey on gorillas and Birutė Galdikas on orangutans. Fossey would be murdered in Rwanda in 1985.

Goodall returned to England but sailed back to Africa with her mother in 1960 to begin her research in Gombe, on Lake Tanganyika.

Alone in the jungle with only their cook, both were felled by malaria. Her mother nearly died. “We just lay in our beds and handed the thermometer back and forth,” Goodall recalled. Somehow, without quinine, they recovered.

She tried repeatedly to make contact with the chimps but they remained aloof, as recorded by an old movie camera she propped up in a tree fork.

Until, after nearly four months, David Greybeard let her get close enough as he made his tool of the tree branch.

“It was held in the left hand, poked into the ground, and then removed coated with termites,” she recorded in her field book. “The straw was then raised to the mouth and the insects picked off with the lips, along the length of the straw, starting in the middle.”

Goodall said she knew immediately that her breakthrough would thrill Leakey. He cabled back: “Now we must redefine ‘tool,’ redefine ‘man’ or accept chimpanzees as human.”

But Goodall also observed the primates in warfare and cannibalism — along with manifestations of empathy and communal rearing of offspring orphaned by poachers. At a waterfall, she observed chimps dancing as if in religious awe.

Sergio Almécija, senior research scientist in primates and human evolution at the American Museum of Natural History, said Goodall revolutionized the way we understand primates and other animals — “like the transition from radio to color TV.”

Starting in 1961, Goodall returned periodically to Cambridge for what became four years of doctoral studies in ethology. “I was told you must focus on feeding behavior or maternal behavior, but not everything,” she recalled.

She focused on everything. She also rejected complaints that she was giving names, not just numbers, to her chimp subjects and recognizing their humanlike traits.

When National Geographic sent a renowned Dutch wildlife photographer, Baron Hugo van Lawick, to Gombe in 1962 to document an irresistible story — a young Englishwoman among the apes — a romance blossomed. They married in London in 1964 and had a child, Hugo Eric Louis, nicknamed Grub. (Now a house builder in Africa and Latin America, he has two sons and a daughter, Goodall’s grandchildren, who work on some of her projects.)

A slowdown in assignments sent van Lawick in search of work in the Serengeti and he and Goodall divorced in 1974. A year later she married the Tanzanian national parks director, Derek Bryceson. He died of cancer in 1980, when Goodall was 46.

In 1986, she helped organize a conference in Chicago, and was shocked to learn how deforestation and pollution were decimating animal populations.

“I went to the conference as a scientist and I left as an activist,” she said.

After revelations of terrible conditions at the Brazzaville zoo in Congo, she persuaded American oil company Conoco to help build a chimp sanctuary in that country. She convinced leading research laboratories like Harvard’s that chimps, after all, made poor models for medical experimentation to benefit humans. Many long-captive animals were released to sanctuaries (though ape-trafficking remained rampant).

She widened her focus to human behavior as well, and became a vegan. “How can we even save the precious chimpanzees,” she asked, “when people all around are struggling to survive?”

Some of her favorite stuffed animals that she carries around in her hand luggage sat last week on a mantle in her New York hotel room: Mr. H, a monkey from a blinded U.S. Marine, Gary Haun, who became a proficient magician, skier and sky diver; Pigcasso, a South African pig taught to create artworks with a paintbrush in her mouth; an octopus from the movie “My Octopus Teacher”; and Rattie, an African pouched rat trained to detect land mines.

Two other items were away on display at a National Geographic Museum traveling exhibition called “Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall” — a piece of the Berlin Wall and a limestone rock from Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island prison.

All symbols, Goodall says, of her mantra — hope.

“I’m seeing humanity as at the mouth of a very long dark tunnel” she said, “and right at the end is a little star — that’s hope. But in order to get there we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and climb under and crawl over all the obstacles that lie in the path, like climate change, and loss of biodiversity. And a very important one is poverty. We must alleviate poverty because really poor people destroy the environment to survive.”

In her hotel suite, the living room lights and brass chandelier were lit. A photo of Tennessee Williams glistened in a vitrine.

Goodall was in a bedroom, resting her eyes from her travels and lectures into the spotlights. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the chandelier began to sway.

Goodall didn’t seem surprised to hear of it. Once, she said, staying in another suite on the same floor, she had seen an apparition.

Did she believe in a hereafter?

There’s either nothing or there’s something, she said. Finding out the answer would be “the next great adventure.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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