Lions and tigers seem like big house cats, at least at a distance. Elephants are portrayed as majestic beasts. And apes, well, they are our evolutionary cousins. But with their high-rise stature, fashionably patterned fur and head horns, giraffes have been perhaps a less relatable creature to the human race.
But as the title of Alison Reid’s enlightening documentary reveals, there indeed was The Woman Who Loved Giraffes, so much so that she wanted to dedicate her life and scientific work to study their habits in the wild and share her research on these fascinating animals with the world. We know of Jane Goodall’s efforts to enter the world of chimpanzees and Dian Fossey’s connection to mountain gorillas in the wild. But several years before they started their studies, a 23-year-old Canadian biologist named Anne Innis Dagg — who felt a kinship to giraffes since she was a child — made a solo trip to South Africa in 1956 to study these stately animals.
The 16-millimeter archival footage, some of it shot by the out-going Dagg herself, is dazzling as we witness the giraffes on the run – what she describes as a “symphony of movement” with their stalky legs and swift two-footed gaits. We get an up-close and personal view of their eating habits and social manner as well as her interactions with the seemingly peaceful creatures, even if we witness a bout of neck fighting amongst some males. The zoologist, whose father was noted Canadian economist Harold Innis and whose mother Mary Quayle Innis was a historian and college dean, would go on to write what is still considered the bible of giraffe behavior in the great outdoors. In 1965, she even showed up as a contestant on the old TV game show To Tell the Truth.
Sadly, despite all her invaluable research and emboldened courage to be the first to study these animals in their natural habitat miles away from her home, Dagg would be ostracized by the male-dominated world of academia in the ‘70s – despite being a published author of scholarly papers and a lecturer with a doctorate degree in animal behavior. Without tenure at a university, she couldn’t afford to continue to pursue her passion. Instead, she became a feminist pioneer fighting against such institutional sexism. Here the doc becomes quite the downer.
But there is a happy ending of sorts in which new generations discover her life’s work and Dagg finds a sponsor who allows her, along with her adult daughter, to afford to revisit her old African stomping grounds. The giraffe population has suffered as civilization has encroached on their space, cutting their numbers to 5,000. But the giraffe-ologist is heartened to meet the new generation of the animals who are likely related to those she originally studied. Her joy at seeing the sonogram of a female giraffe made pregnant by artificial insemination will likely bring tears to your eyes.