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Jane Goodall in the wilds of Beverly Hills

November 1, 2009 |  8:52 pm

Comedian Craig Ferguson pretty much got it right Friday night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, when he told the folks at the Jane Goodall Institute’s global leadership awards:

"It’s nice to be here with people who actually do things rather than just tell jokes on television."

Or who just throw dinners congratulating one another for being so darned swell.

I’ve been to a few dinners at the BW that fit the latter description; the Goodall event fell  into the "do things" category, certainly when it came to two particular honorees. They were sitting at my table, and they’re so young that they drank juice while everyone else drank wine.

Shadrach Meshach lives in Tanzania, where Goodall began her seminal work with chimpanzees. In grade school, he joined up with Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program, grassroots work for animals and the environment. Eventually he began bicycling to Tanzania’s refugee camps for Congolese, persuading hunters to stop killing endangered chimpanzees for meat and showing them how to raise chickens and vegetables instead. He has been breaking other cultural norms, too – he’s an African young man, a teenager, trying to improve women’s lot in life in the belief that that that will improve the world.

He sat quietly on my right, taking in the plush ballroom and the lavish table settings. He has been out of Tanzania twice, once to Orlando, Fla.,last year, for a Jane Goodall young people’s summit, and now here, to Beverly Hills -- not the average visitor’s experience of the United States.

Erica Fernandez came here from Michoacan with her farmworker family when she was a child. Now she’s a full-scholarship sophomore at Stanford; her family still works the fields in Oxnard, she told me, where, as a high school student, she campaigned to keep an LNG facility from being built there. She’s studying matters related to her commitment, environmental justice, and hopes to go to Harvard Law.

Among the grownups honored by Goodall was John Zavalney, already an award-winning LAUSD teacher and science advisor who became a kind of "stand and deliver" hands-on instructor, teaching biology, ecology and environmental science at Foshay Learning Center.

Working with wild creatures rescued by animal welfare workers or confiscated as they were being smuggled into the U.S., Zavalney introduced inner-city students who had never even visited the beach to the wider world of forests and jungles and tidelands and savannas, using these living classroom lessons.

Of course, such awards have to feature some celeb names among the winners – in this case, actress and animal lover Betty White and super-green guy and actor Ed Begley Jr., both of whom delivered the kind of funny remarks that everyone counts on to provide a bit of leavening to other speakers'  serious stuff. 

The public policy award went to mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, "the greenest mayor" L.A. has ever had, announced Begley, who is a big public transit user. Villaraigosa’s was to have been the evening’s first award, but the mayor evidently arrived late, and it was pushed down to later in the program. [Small-world department: The terrific waiter at my table had been a Cathedral High School classmate of Villaraigosa’s.]

The mayor, as I reported in July, met Goodall on his trip to Africa, accompanied by Lu Parker, his girlfriend, KTLA-TV anchor and former teacher and Miss USA pageant winner. On Friday evening, he arrived solo to accept his award. Parker, he said, wasn’t there because she was working.

If you’ve never been to one of these dinners, the silent auction is a regular pre-dinner fundraiser and curtain-raiser. This time, along with the usual wine and hit-DVD and spa packages being offered, guests bid for artwork by chimpanzees.

Later, once people had been softened up by the wine and the vegetarian meal – Goodall told me a few months ago that cutting back on meat eating is one of the most significant things humans can do to improve the globe’s health and survivability -- bidding opened on a one-off item.

For a bid of $25,000, Goodall Institute board member Addison Fischer won the right to name the next primate refugee to arrive at Goodall’s chimpanzee rehab center in Congo. He wasn’t spilling the beans on his choice, but the buzz in the ballroom was weighted heavily in favor of "Jane."

-- Patt Morrison


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