I cried often during the movie The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. It’s the story of Dr Anne Dagg, a Canadian who went to Africa in 1956 to study giraffes for a year. She observed them for ten to twelve hours a day making copious notes, keeping charts, filming and photographing them. Anne was 23, just out of university, and had been in love with giraffes ever since seeing them in the zoo as a child. Anne went to Africa before Jane Goodall had begun her research with primates and so there was no precedent for a young woman doing such a daring thing. But Anne’s mother encouraged Anne to go and follow her dream.
Anne came back to Canada after her time in Africa. She married and had a family. But she was determined to return to Africa to further study her beloved giraffes. The only way to do that was to become a tenured professor and get a research grant. So while raising her three children she obtained a PHD in animal behaviour.
She wrote a textbook about giraffes and had dozens of articles printed in prestigious science periodicals. But when in 1972 after a very successful teaching stint she applied at Guelph, Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier universities for a tenured position she was rejected despite her numerous academic awards and groundbreaking research, because she was a woman. One university told her she should be looking after her husband and children, not teaching science.
Her dream to go back to Africa and study giraffes seemed doomed but Anne, appalled by the way she had been treated because of her gender, became an activist, writer, speaker and advocate for women’s equality in academia.
Almost unbeknownst to Anne her books and articles continued to be the ‘bible’ for scientists interested in studying giraffes. In 2010 Amy Phelps, the giraffe keeper at the San Francisco Zoo decided she was going to track Anne down and invite her to a conference for giraffe care professionals. At the conference, Anne was thrilled to be the first recipient of an award for giraffe research named in her honour. Anne started communicating with other scientists and was delighted to be making new connections with giraffe devotees all over the world.
Director Alison Reid wanted to write and produce a movie about Anne’s life so arrangements were made to film Anne in Africa visiting her beloved giraffes once again. Anne was in her 80s but her dream to revisit Africa was finally realized. While in Africa Anne was saddened to learn how the giraffe population has been reduced by 70% since her first visit in the 1950s. The future of the giraffe is bleak. So Anne has begun another crusade- speaking, writing and fundraising to save the giraffe.
Anne’s story moved me to tears. I loved her independence and passion. I loved the way her mother supported her. I loved it that she fought for herself and that she used her experience as inspiration to fight for other women. Mostly I loved that in her eighties her contributions were recognized, her dreams realized, and she had the courage to tackle new challenges. It makes someone like me who is in her sixties realize that many good and exciting things might still await me on life’s journey.
In February of 2019, the University of Guelph hosted a screening of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. They invited Anne and gave a public apology to her for the way the university had treated her. They also announced they were establishing a Dr Anne Dagg Scholarship for research to be awarded annually. Way to go Anne!