When Anne Innis Dagg was a child, she asked her parents for a book about giraffes, having become interested in the world’s tallest terrestrial creature after a visit to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Sorry, her parents said, there is no such book. Fortunately, that early disappointment didn’t discourage the budding scientist, who went on to literally write the book on giraffes. Quite a few things happened before she got to that point, of course, and quite a bit happened afterwards, and her story is all the more remarkable because Dagg led quite a life in a time when science was a man’s game and women, particularly married women, were not expected to have careers at all.
Dagg’s life and accomplishments are chronicled in Alison Reid’s The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, a straightforward documentary enlivened by the presence of Dagg herself, who’s still a vigorous presence at age 87. Her story isn’t always a happy one, particularly when she’s relating the discrimination she faced as a woman whose ambitions ran smack up against the barricades erected by the old boy’s network, but she’s more inclined to focus on the good in her life. That includes includes not only her scientific work, but also her career as an author and feminist advocate, and her happy marriage and children. You may wonder how she managed to do it all, but she attributes her strength in part to her mother, who taught her to think of herself as a person, even if everyone around her considered her to be “only” a woman.
Dagg’s scientific career began conventionally enough, with a B.A. in Biology from the University of Toronto, where she won a gold medal for her academic achievements. She even had a research placement lined up, only to see the opportunity jerked away due to her gender. Undaunted, she arranged to do fieldwork in South Africa (then ruled by apartheid, which was quite an eye-opener for the young Canadian) beginning in 1956, four years before Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees in the field and seven years before Dian Fossey began her own work on studying mountain gorillas.
Dagg was the first to study giraffes, carefully documenting their behavior and being the first to report, among other things, that males used their long, strong necks to fight. She returned to Canada, completed her doctorate, and began teaching at the University of Guelph. Despite a substantial list of articles in top scientific publications, however, she was denied tenure, a decision she still recalls with pain. When it became clear that, as a married woman, no university would be interested in granting her tenure (because she had a husband to support her, don’t you know), she switched her focus to writing, publishing both about science and about gender discrimination.
She also married—although characteristically, as a young woman she told future husband Ian Dagg that he would have to wait for her to return from her work in Africa—and raised three children, including daughter Mary Dagg, who became a chartered accountant and is currently the Senior Director of Finance for the legal services firm Stikeman Elliott.
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is bookended by footage from a recent trip Dagg took to Africa, where she discovered that her beloved giraffes are endangered by human encroachment and the attractiveness of giraffe as a source of bush meat (although Dagg herself is scrupulously fair, noting that people have to eat). It’s a nice counterpart to the copious home movies and documentary film from her first years in Africa incorporated into this film, the latter often accompanied by readings from the young Dagg’s journals and letters. Including the recent footage helps keep the focus on the Dagg’s scientific work and her remarkable life, a smart choice by Reid, because it lets the film start and end with a celebration of Dagg’s many accomplishments, rather than dwelling on the undeniable injustices she suffered. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a Q & A session from Doc Soup, and 6 deleted scenes.