In a darkened theater in Calgary, a spotlight shines on Anne Innis Dagg, illuminating her swirling white hair and exuberant grin. A screening of the “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes,” a documentary about Innis Dagg’s trailblazing research on giraffes, has just wrapped, and the audience is on its feet. Innis Dagg, who is wearing a vibrant yellow T-shirt adorned with two slender giraffes, looks out at the crowd and pumps her fist.

Over the past year, as “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes” has been touring Canada with occasional stops at film festivals in the United States, Innis Dagg has grown accustomed to standing ovations. After screenings, she gets surrounded by people who want to hug and talk to her.

It wasn’t always this way. For decades, Innis Dagg existed in relative obscurity, her hopes of building a career as an academic scientist repeatedly dashed. Now 86 years old, she is being asked to give interviews, attend conferences, even accept an honorary doctorate. She has been nicknamed the “Jane Goodall of Giraffes” — though Innis Dagg notes that her pioneering research came first.

This late-in-life renaissance has been exhilarating, and not only because Innis Dagg has long felt hurt and frustrated by the lack of recognition for her work. Giraffes are facing an acute conservation crisis, and Innis Dagg is determined to use her newfound platform to help the animals that have captivated her since she was a little girl.

We meet one September afternoon at the Toronto home of Alison Reid, director and producer of “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.” The two women grew close during the five years that Reid followed Dagg for the documentary, and they were now preparing for its theatrical release in the United States, followed by additional screenings in Europe.

Anne Innis Dagg and director Alison Reid. (Courtesy of Anne Innis Dagg)
Anne Innis Dagg and director Alison Reid. (Courtesy of Anne Innis Dagg)

She is dressed in a cream sweater stitched with a tiger, a lion, zebras and — in true Anne Innis Dagg style — two giraffes. A pair of turquoise, giraffe-patterned socks peek out from her shoes.

Her enduring love affair with these striking and curious animals began when she was just 3 years old. During a trip to Chicago, Innis Dagg’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.

Born in Toronto in 1933, Innis Dagg 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, Harold Innis, was an esteemed professor of political economy at the University of Toronto. Her mother, Mary Quayle Innis, wrote prolifically: poems, short stories, magazine articles, a novel and a textbook — titled “An Economic History of Canada” — for Harold’s university lectures. Her mother, Innis Dagg reflects, who also took care of their home and the children, was often “treated like she was nobody.”

Anne Innis Dagg as a child (L) and a childhood drawing. (Courtesy of Anne Innis Dagg)
Anne Innis Dagg as a child (L) and a childhood drawing. (Courtesy of Anne Innis Dagg)

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.

Innis Dagg would become the first person to undertake a behavioral study of wild giraffes.

“I wanted to know more about them,” she says simply, “and realized that's what I 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 groundbreaking study of chimpanzees. These efforts fizzled; Leakey wasn’t able to facilitate any opportunities for Innis Dagg 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 Innis Dagg surveying giraffes in 1956.
Anne Innis Dagg surveying giraffes in 1956.

Innis Dagg 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. Innis Dagg, after all, had nowhere else to go.

At Matthew’s ranch, Innis Dagg 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.

Decades later, Reid was thrilled to discover that the reels still existed. “Oh my gosh, it was gold,” the filmmaker says. “Can you imagine?”

Reid incorporated this archival footage into “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes,” where we see a 23-year-old Innis Dagg galloping through wispy fields, peering at giraffes through binoculars, even prodding at body of a giraffe that had been shot on the ranch.

She is a woman in her element.

Anne Innis Dagg at the ranch in South Africa in 1956 (L) and 2015. (Courtesy of Alison Reid)
Anne Innis Dagg at the ranch in South Africa in 1956 (L) and 2015. (Courtesy of Alison Reid)

Innis Dagg 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, Innis Dagg 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 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.

“I just couldn’t understand it,” Innis Dagg says.

In media reports from the time — she approached several newspapers with her story — Innis Dagg said she believed 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 Innis Dagg’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.

Jonathan Newman, who recently served as the dean of the biology college at the University of Guelph, says it is possible that part of the problem was that Innis Dagg was conducting a “relatively novel” kind of biology that was out of sync with department norms. But, Newman adds, “I have no reason to doubt her claim. [It] was not a great time for women, particularly in science.”

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, Innis Dagg felt, was relatively “inexperienced” — she enlisted the help of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, once again claiming discrimination. As “conciliation,” Innis Dagg told reporters at the time, the university offered her part-time positions; she refused them, and the commission closed her case.

Newspaper clippings detail Anne Innis Dagg's employment hurdles.
Newspaper clippings detail Anne Innis Dagg's employment hurdles.

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, she 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.

Her magnum opus was arguably her first scientific book on giraffes, which she co-authored with the biologist Bristol Foster. Titled “The Giraffe: Its biology, behavior and ecology,” the book was published in 1976 and “set a foundation for all future studies on the natural history of giraffe,” says Fred Bercovitch, an adjunct professor at Kyoto University and executive director of Save the Giraffes. “[She] has information in her book on everything from why they might have certain coat patterns, to why they locomote the way they do, to their physiology raising their temperature if it’s too hot.”

At the time of her pioneering study of giraffes in South Africa, Innis Dagg was “a voice in the wilderness,” Bercovitch says.

No one had done research like it 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 Innis Dagg’s book.

Amy Phelps, a curator at the San Francisco Zoo, remembers cherishing the text when she was a teenager who loved giraffes. “That was the person that I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to talk to her and I wanted to meet her," says Phelps.

Innis Dagg has acknowledged that some of her original research as now been proven incorrect. Giraffes’ social ties are stronger than she originally thought, for example. But her observations provided crucial launching points for the scientists who followed her.

A network of scientists, zookeepers and giraffe enthusiasts came to revere Innis Dagg’s book, calling it their “Bible.” And yet, for decades, Innis Dagg had no idea that she had become a celebrity to a niche group of experts. It’s an odd thing to ponder, but she wasn’t being inundated with requests to give talks or provide more information about her research. In fact, around 1990, Innis Dagg decided to finally throw out the 100-odd copies that she had made of her first journal article on giraffes.

“I felt badly,” she says. “But they had been sitting there and no one had cared.”

It is possible that Innis Dagg remained isolated from other giraffe experts for so long because she was operating as an independent scientist and, in the pre-Internet age, it was simply hard to find her. What’s more, the community of giraffe researchers has been slow to coalesce. In 2010, the now-defunct International Association of Giraffe Care Professionals prepared to meet for its inaugural conference in Phoenix; never before, Phelps says, had there been an event that was “specifically geared towards bringing all of those people that work with giraffes in all the different fields together.”

And she felt it only made sense for the foremother of giraffe studies to be there.

Phelps, who at the time worked as the senior giraffe keeper at the Oakland Zoo, asked a colleague to find contact information for Innis Dagg, who was “astonished” to receive an invitation to speak at the conference. “I had never heard of this group,” Innis Dagg says. “I was beyond thrilled.”

Once she had plugged into a network of like-minded experts, Innis Dagg found opportunities to attend other giraffe-centric events, including a conference in Kenya in 2013.

By this point, Reid had discovered Innis Dagg’s story through a program on CBC Radio, and had been in touch with her about making a scripted movie about her life. But when she heard that Innis Dagg would be travelling to Africa, once again giving her a chance to see giraffes in the wild, Reid wanted to be on hand to capture the journey — even though she had never made a documentary before.

Anne Innis Dagg at Brookfield Zoo at 14 years old (L) and 83 years old.
Anne Innis Dagg at Brookfield Zoo at 14 years old (L) and 83 years old.

“I thought this is historic, we have to record this,” Reid says, adding that she “fell in love with Anne and her story.”

With the release of “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes,” Innis Dagg’s profile has skyrocketed.

In February, Newman, who at the time was still a University of Guelph dean, hosted a screening of the documentary and announced that a research scholarship, to be awarded annually to one female student, had been created in Innis Dagg’s name. Newman also read a message from the provost and vice president, Charlotte Yates, apologizing for the way Innis Dagg was treated all those decades ago.

While she is is pleased with the atonement, Innis Dagg 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, Innis Dagg 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.”

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