People love giraffes but somehow these majestic creatures don’t receive the global attention that primates and elephants do. So, it’s exciting and gratifying to see a highly productive, self-proclaimed citizen scientist finally get the recognition she deserves in filmmaker Alison Reid’s fascinating documentary, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. The film is a labor of love profiling Canadian zoologist and feminist Anne Innis Dagg who has been passionate about giraffes her entire life, ever since visiting Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo as a three-year-old with her mother. She became the first scientist, male or female, to study animal behavior in the wild in Africa, years before Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey arrived. She became known as the Jane Goodall of giraffe research who founded the study of giraffe biology.
Dagg was a fiercely independent young girl whose mother instilled in her at an early age the importance of seeing herself as a person, not just as a woman, and encouraged her to pursue her dreams. In 1956, the 23-year-old biologist postponed marriage plans to travel to South Africa to pursue her lifelong passion for studying giraffes. In that era, a woman traveling alone in apartheid South Africa was unprecedented. The film reveals how her persistence convinced citrus farmer Alexander Matthew to allow her to visit his Fleur de Lys Estate near Kruger National Park and study giraffes in the wild. Dagg became a legend in the giraffe community when her pioneering field research was published in 1976 in a groundbreaking book, The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior, and Ecology, which she co-wrote with Jay Bristol Foster.
After Dagg returned to Canada, she completed her Ph.D. and secured a teaching position in the Department of Zoology at the University of Guelph in 1968, but was denied tenure in 1971 when she came up against a firmly entrenched old boys network. She felt her all-male tenure and promotion committee unfairly judged her work despite an excellent record of teaching, research, and publication that rivaled that of her male counterparts. Indeed, her research had been published in some of the top journals in the world. However, she found herself up against a power structure with four or five male individuals at the top who had a strong influence on the department.
In that era, there was one mold for a successful academic, and Dagg’s pioneering research and gender didn’t fit it. So, she began to look for opportunities elsewhere. When she applied for a job at Wilfrid Laurier University and the job was given to a man with fewer qualifications, she filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission citing the university’s anti-women bias. After multiple bureaucratic delays, her case was denied. She considered applying for a position at the University of Waterloo, but their Dean refused to hire married women. Denial of tenure meant the end to everything Dagg had hoped for. Once she realized her career in academia would never lead to a permanent appointment, she turned to writing feminist books that exposed the sexism in universities across Canada. Thirty years passed during which Dagg had little contact with giraffes. Without research funds to support her work and unable to obtain a position that allowed her to teach or earn any reasonable salary, she could not afford to go to Africa. Instead, she wrote many scientific books on animals and strived to achieve fairness for women.
In the 2010’s, Dagg returned to the giraffe world when she was honored at the inaugural meeting of the International Association of Giraffe Care Professionals where she accepted an award in her name that recognized her significant contributions to the field. The event gave her the opportunity to rekindle her passion for giraffes and to meet and interact with new generations of students, zookeepers, biologists, naturalists and gamekeepers who were inspired by her early work. Her love of giraffe came alive again as she was invited to conferences, received awards, and realized how she had inspired so many people. She thought she had been forgotten only to discover she was very well known in the giraffe community and her pioneering book was considered their bible. Dagg found a whole community of people who loved giraffe as much she did and knew her because of the book she had written.
Her renewed connections with the giraffe community inspired her in 2014 to write and publish a follow-up to her early book, Giraffe: Biology, Behavior and Conservation, in which she bravely reconsidered some of her early assumptions, admitted mistakes, and revealed exciting new discoveries and observations. The updated book had tripled in size and was far more comprehensive. As Dagg explains, “Getting back into the giraffe community really changed my life. When Cambridge University Press wanted to have a new update of my Giraffe book, now I knew all these individuals working in all these areas. I could talk to them and find out what they thought were the important papers, and that enabled me to write a new book on the science of giraffes.” In 2015, at 82, Dagg returned to Africa to retrace her journey from decades earlier and revisited the Fleur de Lys Estate where her promising career had begun.
The filmmakers make excellent use of gorgeous archival footage, old handwritten letters and correspondence, and contemporary interviews with family, former academic colleagues (including retired Professor Sandy Middleton who supported her advancement to tenure and Dean Keith Ronald of the College of Biological Science at Guelph who had hired Dagg when he was the Chair of Zoology yet supported her tenure denial), and a wide range of scientists doing cutting edge work today in the giraffe community. The film features the voices of Tatiana Maslany, Victor Garber, David Chinchilla and Lindsay Leese whose readings bring the letters to life.
Reid’s documentary provides valuable insights and perspective on the endangered status of giraffes in today’s rapidly evolving world where there has been a greater than 80 percent decline in the reticulated giraffe population over the past 15 years. Those statistics suggest a population plummeting towards extinction, and it’s happening all across Africa where there’s been a 30 to 40 percent decline in the total giraffe population. Reid documents current conservation efforts to prevent extinction, protect habitat by maintaining and sustaining habitat quality, and artificial insemination with genetic material that has been stored for years in cryotanks and gives hope that those animals that are no longer with us are able to contribute to a larger genetic population. Importantly, efforts are actively being made to educate young people in tribal areas and keep them involved in their heritage.
An impressive number of people are interviewed in this documentary who are committed to making a difference. Their contributions are invaluable. They include: Andy Tutchings, Conservationist and Researcher; Zoe Muller, Rothchild’s Giraffe Project; Gareth Chamberlain, Lead Keeper, London Zoo; Amy Phelps, Curator, San Francisco Zoo; Fred Bercovitch, Executive Director, Save the Giraffes; John Doherty, Queen’s University Belfast, Reticulated Giraffe Project; David Brown, Giraffe Genetics Specialist; Lisa Clifton-Bumpass, Giraffe Behavior Specialist; Jacob Leaidura, Naturalist & Lecturer, Reticulated Giraffe Project, Samburu National Reserve, Kenya; Francois Deacon, Giraffe Habitat Resource Specialist, University of the Free State, South Africa; and Jason Pootoolal, Head Game Warden, African Lion Safari, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is an intimate, emotional, and thought-provoking portrait of a trailblazing woman who passionately pursued her dreams. Despite the roadblocks Dagg encountered which ended her academic career and closed off an especially happy part of her life, she never gave up and used those experiences to shape her future endeavors. At 86, she remains relevant in her field and is recognized as one of Canada’s foremost animal scientists. In an era of extraordinary environmental change, Dagg is still convinced we can all make a difference if only more people become involved and carry on like she did. This is an inspiring and well produced documentary that should be at the top of everyone’s list of must-see films.