‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’ Docu Showcasing The Barrier-Breaking Work Of Scientist Anne Innis Dagg

We’re all familiar with the groundbreaking work of British primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, who is considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. She is best known for her over 55-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees since she first went to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in 1960. But if you are a fan of her work, then you’d better get familiar with Canadian scientist Anne Innis Dagg who was actually a pioneer in this area of science before Jane set foot in Africa.

A new documentary, from director Alison Reid, is bringing Anne’s story, struggles and triumphs to a wide audience, showcasing how tough it can be for a woman in a male-dominated field at a time when the mere thought of even traveling alone to the other side of the world as a female was eyebrow-raising.

In 1956, four years before Jane Goodall ventured into the world of chimpanzees and seven years before Dian Fossey left to work with mountain gorillas, in fact, before anyone, man or woman had made such a trip, 23-year-old Canadian biologist, Anne Innis Dagg, made a solo journey to South Africa to become the first person in the world to study animal behavior in the wild on that continent. When she returned home a year later armed with ground-breaking research, the insurmountable barriers she faced as a female scientist proved much harder to overcome.

Young Anne in her Car viewing giraffes | Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

In 1972, having published 20 research papers as an assistant professor of zoology at University of Guelph, the Dean of the university denied her tenure. She couldn’t apply to the University of Waterloo because the Dean there told Anne that he would never give tenure to a married woman. This was the catalyst that transformed Anne into a feminist activist. For three decades, Anne Innis Dagg was absent from the giraffe world until 2010 when she was sought out by giraffologists and not just brought back to into the fold, but finally celebrated for her work. In ‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’, an older (now 85), wiser Anne takes us on her first expedition back to Africa to retrace where her trail-blazing journey began more than half a century ago. By retracing her original steps Anne offers an intimate window into her life as a young woman, juxtaposed with a first hand look at the devastating reality that giraffes are facing today. Both the world’s first ‘giraffologist’, whose research findings ultimately became the foundation for many scientists following in her footsteps, and the species she loves have each experienced triumphs as well as nasty battle scars.

We spoke with both Anne and director Alison about the film and what lessons we can learn from Anne’s powerful life journey.

ANNE INNIS DAGG: 

What was it like to revisit your life and career through the documentary ‘The Woman who Loves Giraffes’?

It was the chance of a lifetime to return to Fleur de Lys, South Africa – the very place where I’d done my scientific work in 1956. To be able to show it to my daughter, Mary was the icing on the cake. I loved that part, however, being interviewed for the documentary also brought up some hard memories about the sexism I faced at three universities. Since the film has come out, it has been very rewarding to see how strongly people have responded to the film and how interested people are in the work I did. 

It was quite compelling seeing you get emotional about the sexism you had to put up with, even today. Why did you feel it was important to talk about this?

It makes me angry when women so often get the short end of the stick and I want to shine a light on that so it never happens again.

Given today’s environmental concerns on a global scale, why do you think it is important that giraffes continue to be studied and protected?   

The more we know about giraffe the more able we’ll be to protect them. If we want to the world to survive, we need to protect every species. Each species -including giraffe – are an integral part of the ecosystem.

What do you hope young female scientists will take away from your story? 

The confidence to pursue their dreams; fight for their rights; and stand up for the rights of their friends and colleagues. If all women did that, I think we’d be way ahead. 

ALISON REID: 

Can you share how you first came across Anne’s story and what made you want to make a documentary about her? 

Who wouldn’t be captivated by the story of an adventurous young woman who is talented, smart and will stop at nothing to follow her dreams?  That she loved giraffes and went to Africa by herself to study them made it even more appealing to me. When I heard a radio documentary about Anne – and then I read her book ‘Pursuing Giraffe – A 1950’s Adventure’ – I knew I had to make a film about it.  I initially envisioned a scripted film – like Gorilla’s in the Mist – but when I found out Anne was returning to Africa after so long – I thought it was historic and asked if I could go with her and film it.  She kindly said yes, and that’s how the documentary was born.

Her life story is partly retold through the narration of letters she kept for many years, voiced by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. Having worked with the actress previously, what was it about Anne’s story that had her convinced about the project?    

I do think that many parts of Anne’s story resonated with Tatiana – but I can’t speak for her. I had been an admirer of Tatiana and her work for a long time, and wrote her a letter describing not only Anne’s story, but her character as well. I knew Tatiana would be able to capture the spirit of Young Anne in her letters – and I was thrilled when she said yes. She was doing a play in New York at the time, so I went to NY and we did the recordings there. I also recorded Victor Garber in NY. He plays the voice of Mr Matthew, the rancher who facilitated Anne’s giraffe studies in South Africa.

Director Alison Reid | Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

The frustration over Anne’s denial of certain academic opportunities is palpable in the film. Why did you feel it was important to show this aspect of her story, and how she worked to fight against it?   

I asked Anne about the discrimination she faced in academia because I felt it was an essential part of her story – it had a profound effect on her career – and on her ability to study giraffes.  It also speaks to her character. She didn’t give up – she not only fought for her rights, but became an advocate for all women. 

It’s ironic to me that she was able to overcome every obstacle she faced in Africa, yet when she got back to North America – the brick wall she faced was impenetrable. 

Anne Innis Dagg with a 16mm camera in 2017 | Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

What was it like traveling to Africa with Anne to film her setting foot in the continent after 57 years?   

Amazing!!  I’d been fascinated by Africa since I was a kid, but I’d never been there. It was quite a challenge to organize a shoot in Africa having never experienced it – but it all came together beautifully. To be there with Anne at Fleur de Lys and other historic places I’d read about in her book was a real privilege. 

The most compelling part of the film was seeing Anne get emotional when recalling being denied tenure, and hearing one of the University panelists today saying he had “no regrets” about denying her that position and that he had nothing to apologize to her for. How did that make you feel, as a filmmaker and as a woman, capturing these moments?   

I made a conscious decision to go into that interview with an open mind. It was a very different time in history when Anne was denied tenure. Attitudes about equality towards women have changed a lot since then. I thought perhaps the attitude of the Dean of Biology and head of Tenure & Promotions Committee may have evolved with the times. But clearly it hadn’t. We still have a long way to go. 

Anne Innis Dagg at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago | Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Today she is a revered icon in the scientific and biological global community, getting top recognition from other women in the field. What was it like witnessing and capturing this full circle moment for a woman who so deserved the same status as Jane Goodall many years ago?

It has been extremely rewarding. I love seeing how moved people are by Anne’s story. They line up to meet her her after the film – and tell her how angry or sad they are – or how much they too love giraffes. To see Anne finally receiving the accolades she so richly deserves after all this time makes me very happy.

What do you hope young women and girls will learn from Anne’s story? 

To be tenacious about following their dreams. Also remember that no matter how bad things seem – time can often change things for the better.

And perhaps more importantly, what do you hope the academic and scientific industries will learn from Anne’s story? 

Both communities are much better at valuing the work of all people including women – and Anne’s story reinforces that. Since the documentary came out, the universities where Anne experienced issues have all stepped up. The University of Waterloo gave her an Honorary Doctorate. The University of Guelph screened the film for their students and faculty. It issued Anne an official apology and established a scholarship in her name: The Anne Innis Dagg Scholarship for Summer Research – to support to a female biology student in her fieldwork each year.


‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’ opens Jan. 10 at Quad Cinema in NY & Feb. 21 at Laemmle Theatres in LA with subsequent engagements nationwide. Head to the Zeitgeist films website for more details.

Young Anne in a car, age23 | Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

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