Imagine a woman who, in the 1950s, embarked on a journey to observe and document the lives of giraffes in their natural habitat in South Africa at the start of the apartheid. This is the story of Dr. Anne Innis Dagg—a prominent figure in the world of zoology—who was a guest at the 2023 annual Snider Lecture hosted by the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her story is the definition of determination and showcases how passion can make anything possible.
I had the privilege of attending the online screening of her documentary, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, and the Q&A session between Dr. Dagg and her daughter Mary Dagg. Dr. Dagg’s remarkable story was made uniquely immersive through the integration of her actual letters to family, friends, and partners, and how her personal life, love life, and scientific life intersected with her research journey.
Over her career, Dr. Dagg wrote more than 85 papers and books combined, especially about giraffes. Her fascination with giraffes began with visits to the zoo at the age of three. “These are just wonderful animals. I just couldn’t believe they were so beautiful. And I kept [asking] my parents, couldn’t we go and see some more giraffes?” shared Dr. Dagg.
When Dr. Dagg was completing her undergrad at the University of Toronto, she joined the environmental club. Students in the club came from a wide variety of disciplines but were united under a common interest in animals and their environments. “I think you said every Saturday or Sunday you’d find somewhere in Toronto and go and look at the birds,” Mary Dagg said to her mother. Dr. Dagg noted, however, that she never saw a giraffe there, so after graduating, courageously, she embarked on a journey to South Africa to study giraffes in the wild.
Dr. Dagg’s research was not only focused on the behavioural aspect of giraffes but also on the anatomy of the animals. She studied their intestines, hearts, and stomachs. “No one had ever really studied an African animal in the wild or pretty well any animal in the wild. So, I was sort of breaking ground without realizing,” she explained.
The documentary highlighted how her journals, observations, and photographs captured various giraffe behaviours such as fights and even how male giraffes tested female urine to assess their readiness to mate. In the documentary, Dr. Dagg noted that “a terrific wall upon the chest is the most spectacular display. It is much better to watch than human boxing because no one ever seems to get very badly hurt,” she continued.
Nevertheless, her journey coming back to Canada was far from smooth. After earning her PhD and briefly working at a university, her dream was to become a professor, but this was challenged because she was a woman. She applied for jobs in universities all over Canada. However, she kept getting rejected, either because she was married or for the sole reason of her gender. In response, she took legal action to fight for her rights and those of other women.
In this fight, she formed various committees and wrote feminist books about sexism in Canadian academia. “I kept writing, and I wrote scientific books on animals, but much of the rest of my life was fighting to get fairness for women,” she highlighted in the documentary.
She also wrote books about her research on giraffes and shared her passion with the world, bridging the gap in the scientific world when it came to the study of this animal. However, Mary Dagg noted that her mother struggled to receive tenure. At that point, Dr. Dagg shared: “I read as many books as I could, but really there wasn’t anything about Africa. Small things, but nothing very big because nobody had really gone and seen what was going on.”
Although she wasn’t well known to the public, Dr. Dagg’s name started to receive the recognition it deserved years later, as she won awards and invitations to giraffe-related conferences. These opportunities allowed her to return to South Africa, which reignited her passion for giraffes. Because of this, she was able to talk with other scientists in the field, which inspired her to write another book called Giraffe: Biology, Behaviour and Conservation: When Cambridge University Press wanted to publish an updated edition of a book on giraffes, Dr. Dagg knew individuals working in all these areas. “I could talk to them and find out what they thought were the important papers. That enabled me to write a new book on the science of giraffes,” shared Dr. Dagg in the film screening.
Mary Dagg and Dr. Dagg also discussed the importance of mentorship, specifically for young female scholars and scientists who may face gender discrimination in their professional lives. She talked about her experience with sexism and explained that the mentors available today can help to provide support and guidance for the next generation of female scientists.
“One thing that a lot of women scientists have now is mentors, people that have ideas and can maybe do some strategizing about how to deal with situations where you might be impacted through some form of discrimination,” Mary Dagg explains. In [my mother’s] case it was gender, but there’s so much more of a network than there was back in [her] day,” stressed Mary Dagg.
They emphasized the importance of studying, conserving wildlife, and appreciating and protecting the creatures that live alongside us on this planet. The giraffe is slowly going extinct; the population is decreasing rapidly because of hunting and various other environmental factors. Unfortunately, people are not paying attention to this. So, in 2020, Dr. Dagg made her lifelong dream come true by starting the Anne Innis Dagg (AID) Foundation.
The AID Foundation engages communities as caretakers of their environment and advocates for sustainability and biodiversity. The purpose of the mission is to draw attention to the challenges wild giraffes are facing in Africa and encourage more people to support conservation. “I think part of what we’re trying to do with our foundation is make things easier for people going forward, especially kids. [We’re] trying to engage children in education and conservation,” explained Mary Dagg.
Dr. Dagg’s story is a remarkable illustration of the spirit of those who dedicate their lives to understanding the treasures that enrich our planet. Her legacy extends beyond her groundbreaking work in the study of giraffes—her role as a feminist and advocate for women’s rights in academics has also made her a pioneer. Dr Dagg’s research, conducted without the modern technology or communication tools we have today, helped pave the way for the study of animals in their natural habitat.