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In the course of interviews and travel together, Keele Burgin and Jane Goodall have forged a close connection. (photo by Jeff Orlowski)

Boulderite Keele Burgin sparks an uncommon relationship with renowned primatologist Jane Goodall

By Julie Kailus

Entrepreneur Keele Burgin thought she had Dr. Jane Goodall booked for 10 hours. As it turned out, the legendary chimpanzee scientist and U.N. Messenger of Peace stayed at Burgin’s Boulder hideaway for five magical days.

“She really does have fairy dust that she sprinkles around,” says Burgin, 48, a business pioneer who spends her time leading women’s empowerment projects around the world, writing, speaking—and now, with the subject of a lifetime, making her first film.

Goodall speaks to kids at a fundraising event in Burgin’s creekside backyard. (photo courtesy keele burgin)

Several years ago, she booked Goodall for a daylong fundraising event, packing in community-wide speaking engagements and ending with an intimate outdoor gathering at Burgin’s creekside compound. Local restaurateurs Dave and Dana Query put on a five-course dinner, but that’s where anything resembling formality ended.

“Jane was supposed to leave at 10 p.m., but we wandered over to my writing studio and ended up talking until 2 a.m.,” Burgin says. By the end of the week, Goodall had read Burgin’s draft memoir, filled with the raw chaos of her tumultuous youth.

Goodall has since called the manuscript “brilliant.” She wrote to Burgin, “I am hooked by your book [(W)holy Unraveled, out in 2018], your style of writing. So vivid, giving life to scenes with a minimum of words.”

The point is that the connection was not about Goodall at all. “She asked me about my life and I didn’t Pollyanna it,” Burgin says. “She’s interested in other people, but more like the shy 12-year-old in the corner or the busboy who just cleared her plate. If you ever called her famous she would say something like, ‘No, I am Jane.’”

Notes from the ‘Enchanted Forest’

The relationship sparked that night in Boulder has given Burgin an unprecedented look in the windows of Goodall’s life. She’s followed the 80-year-old matriarch of the Jane Goodall Institute around the world, learning about the “real” Jane—capturing raw footage among her beloved chimpanzees, leafing through tattered, hand-cut field notes in Goodall’s unassuming African home, and often just sitting outdoors in unabashed silence.

On a sunset beach by Goodall’s home in Gombe, Tanzania, Burgin wrote in
her journal:

The brown furred creatures shift to meet the night.

The tree straight above is home while the Musanga fruit is ripe and prevalent.

The canopy and crown smell of the mist they lend to the earth and time

slows its pace to meet the ages gone by.

I watch the mothers weave branches to fashion beds for the night while babies cling to their backs with casual grace.

I feel my belonging and humankind’s narrative in this enchanted forest. 

“Although I have interviewed [Goodall] for hours and hours, it’s never an interview, it’s a friendship,” Burgin says.

In Gombe, Burgin watched about 30 chimpanzees for hours. “Then the alpha male came in and WOW that was a show!!!!” (photo courtesy keele burgin)

Yet days with Jane have been marked by entirely lighthearted moments, too, a testament to Goodall’s incorrigible wit and unpretentious charm. She called via FaceTime to invite Burgin and her boys to her 80th birthday party. Prior to the big bash, Burgin walked into a San Francisco hotel room in a new pair of shoes. “Oh, those shoes are awful!” Goodall blurted. They laughed, ate Chinese takeout and drank Jane’s favorite—scotch—from the bathroom cups.

“She is so alive with vitality,” Burgin says of Goodall, who still travels 300 days a year to speak for JGI, yet still wears jelly shoes for long hikes in the jungle. “She is so wonderfully simple in her needs from the world. She just wants everyone to do their part to save our beautiful planet.”

Remember that at just 26, untrained and unschooled, Goodall walked into an African forest with six months of funding to come up with something anthropologically arresting about apes. Her only chaperone was not a man, but rather her mother, Vanne.

An interview at Goodall’s home in Gombe, Tanzania. (photo courtesy keele burgin)

In the storyline Burgin has written on her research and has tapped a Hollywood production company to co-create, she is especially drawn to the uncommon relationship—an untold story—between Jane and her mother, a connection profoundly lacking in Burgin’s own life. “It’s like a love story from a mother to a daughter,” Burgin says.

“I would ask her, ‘Tell me the things you don’t want to say out loud—that’s the stuff I want to talk about,’” Burgin says. And for the most part, Goodall has obliged, revealing experiences that haven’t been told in the existing documentaries on her life. Some stories, just like Goodall, are complicated. “I asked her, ‘What if [the stories] get out?’” Burgin says. “She just looked at me and said, ‘It’s the truth.’”

Burgin is clearly enchanted by Goodall’s humanity. “In many ways she’s just like us. We don’t fit in one category—none of us can,” Burgin says. “She’s pegged as an anthropologist or conservationist, but I was attracted to the woman inside.”

So just what comes out on the big screen remains, like Jane, to be seen.