Dr. Anne Innis Dagg


This is a story about a strong, powerful and wonderful woman who dared to enter a world of science just because she wanted to study a curious animal that most people saw as ‘alien’.  Dr. Anne Innis Dagg was a university lecturer in Zoology and an expert on giraffes, even known as the Jane Goodall of giraffes.

Born in Toronto in 1933, Anne had a happy home life. She was fortunate, during the Great Depression, to belong to a comfortably middle-class family, with enough food to spare for the wanderers who sometimes knocked on their door to ask for a sandwich. Her father was an esteemed professor of political economy at the University of Toronto. Her mother wrote prolifically: poems, short stories, magazine articles, a novel and even a textbook — titled “An Economic History of Canada” — for Harold’s university lectures. Her mother, Anne reflects, who also took care of their home and the children, was often “treated like she was nobody.”

Her enduring love affair with these striking and curious animals began when she was just 3 years old. During a trip to Chicago, Anne’s mother took her to the Brookfield Zoo, where she watched, enraptured, as giraffes ambled about in their enclosure. She started to collect pictures of giraffes and draw them. Her mother sewed her three stuffed giraffes. She still has two of the dolls

Anne fell in love with giraffes during a childhood visit to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. When she asked for a book on the animals, she was surprised to learn there wasn't one.  So, she thought, 'Well, I'll learn about giraffes and then I'll write one,'.  And that she just did becoming the first person to undertake a behavioral study of wild giraffes.

She pursued this passion in school, graduating from the University of Toronto in 1955 with a degree in biology. A year later, at 23, she convinced a farmer in South Africa to let her conduct research on his land. On her first night at the Fleur de Lys cattle farm, she saw her first wild giraffe. They went to see a little pond, and there was a giraffe, just waiting to get a drink of water. Anne looked at it, and thought, “What a beautiful animal.”

Her parents never suggested that she was any less capable than her brothers and so it did not occur to her that it would be strange for a young woman to head to South Africa by herself to study giraffes after she graduated from the University of Toronto with a biology degree in 1955.

It was, in fact, an exceptional aspiration for any scientist at the time. In the mid-20th century, researchers were only starting to head out to the field to conduct rigorous studies of how animals behave in the wild. She simply wanted to know more about them and realized that's what she would have to do.

But first, she would have to find a place to stay. She started sending letters to wildlife departments in countries where giraffes live, hoping to find a base for her research. She corresponded with Louis Leakey, the famed paleoanthropologist who, just a few years later, would help Jane Goodall launch her ground-breaking study of chimpanzees. These efforts fizzled; Leakey wasn’t able to facilitate any opportunities for her in Kenya, where he was based, and she began to suspect that others were dismissing her queries because she was a woman.

She started signing her letters “A. Innis,” a more ambiguous alternative to “Anne Innis.” Finally, in 1956, she received a response from a rancher named Alexander Matthew, who invited her to his property near Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Anne only came clean to Matthew after she set sail from Canada, sending him a letter signed with her full name. Once she arrived in South Africa, she was greeted by a response from Matthew revoking his invitation. He felt it would be improper for a young, unchaperoned woman to stay with him on the ranch. But after she begged him to reconsider, he relented. Anne, after all, had nowhere else to go.

At Matthew’s ranch, Anne estimates she spent around nine hours each day watching the animals from within the sweltering confines of her car, so as not to disturb her subjects. She took notes on the giraffes’ movements, their feeding behavior, how they sparred with one another, how they suckled their babies. She borrowed Matthew’s camera to film the giraffes, and Matthew sometimes filmed her, worried that her footage would be too dull without a human interest element.

Anne left South Africa in 1957, and the conclusion of her research was followed by a quick succession of milestones. In England, on her way back to Canada, she married Ian Dagg, a physicist whom she had met at the University of Toronto. The couple would go on to have three children: Hugh, Ian and Mary.

In 1958, Anne published her giraffe research in the “Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London,” a scientific journal. She earned her PhD in biology, continued to publish on a range of subjects(Cont'd at Right)

and was hired as an assistant professor at the zoology department at the University of Guelph, located some 60 miles outside Toronto.

In 1971, much to her shock, the University of Guelph denied her tenure and informed her that she would be fired within 18 months. It was a shattering blow — one that effectively squashed her academic ambitions

She approached several newspapers with her story believing the decision was motivated by sexism and that she was being refused tenure “because she had a family.” The tenure committee maintained that the quality of Anne’s teaching was “not up to standard” — though her course evaluations, from 1971 at least, were generally positive — and that her publications were not of a “desirable scientific sophistication” — despite the nearly 30 of her papers had appeared in respected journals.

She spent the next several years trying, unsuccessfully, to find another academic job. Her interactions with the leadership of other universities only confirmed her belief that gender biases were rampant on campuses.

In 1974, she applied for a position as an ecologist at Wilfrid Laurier University, also in Ontario, but was never granted an interview. When she found out the job had gone to a male professor — who, she felt, was relatively “inexperienced” — she enlisted the help of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, once again claiming discrimination. As “conciliation,” she told reporters at the time, the university offered her part-time positions; she refused them, and the commission closed her case.

Ultimately, she decided that if she wanted to continue her scientific studies, she would have to do so independently. She went on to write about Canadian wildlife, camels in Mauritania and homosexual behavior in a range of species.

Still rankled by her experiences within the system of higher education, Anne became involved in a number of feminist projects, among them co-authoring “MisEducation: Women & Canadian Universities,” which explored the “anti-woman ambience” that was negatively impacting female scholars.

No one had done research like Anne before, and for some time afterwards, few scientists conducted similarly comprehensive field studies of wild giraffes; the interest in the animals just wasn’t there. During those fallow years, anyone who wanted to learn about giraffes would find few resources other than her book.

A network of scientists, zookeepers and giraffe enthusiasts came to revere Anne’s book, calling it their “Bible.” And yet, for decade. She had no idea that she had become a celebrity to a niche group of experts. Once she had plugged into a network of like-minded experts, Innis she found opportunities to attend other giraffe-centric events, including a conference in Kenya in 2013.

By this point, Alison Reid had discovered Anne’s story through a program on CBC Radio, and had been in touch with her about making a scripted movie about her life. When she heard that Anne would be travelling to Africa once again giving her a chance to see giraffes in the wild, she wanted to be on hand to capture the journey. She had never made a documentary before but had fallen in love with Anne and her story. 

Even more thrilling, Alison incorporated Anne’s archival footage into “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes,” where we see a 23-year-old Anne galloping through wispy fields, peering at giraffes through binoculars, even prodding at body of a giraffe that had been shot on the ranch.

With the release of this documentary Anne’s profile has skyrocketed.

The Dean of the University of Guelph hosted a screening of the documentary and announced that a research scholarship created in Anne’s name is to be awarded annually to one female student. He also read a message from the provost and vice president apologizing for the way Anne was treated all those decades ago.

While she is pleased with the atonement, Anne is mostly thrilled for the opportunities to advocate for giraffe conservation. Threatened by habitat loss, ecological changes, poaching and human conflicts in their natural range, their numbers have plummeted some 40 percent over three decades, and it has been estimated that less than 100,000 individuals are now left in the world.

And as she travels the globe telling her story, Anne hopes to convey a message to women who are currently carving a space for themselves in scientific fields.

“Just keep trying,” she says. “There’s no other way to do it. And never give up.”

World Giraffe Day is June 21st...see the AMAZING footage in this documentary to see and feel the love like Anne did. 

 Anne's Books ( Adults/Children's)
Find out more about Anne Innis Dagg by visiting her Website, Following her on Facebook or Youtube 

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