Film Reviews

Review: ‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’

A must-see doc about one of Canada’s greatest scientists


The Woman who loves Giraffes
By Marc Glassman
Alison Reid, director

In 1956, Anne Innis Dagg, a 23-years-old Torontonian, went where no female, or male biologist, had ever gone before—-to study the behaviour of giraffes in the wilds of South Africa. The determined young woman, who is truly Canada’s Jane Goodall and has shown a life-long fascination with giraffes, succeeded in convincing a farmer near South Africa’s acclaimed Kruger National Park to allow her to stay in his home in exchange for clerical services. It took Anne Innis Dagg a number of weeks to convince Matthew, the farmer, to let her be there and while that encounter turned out well, one can see in it what happened all too often in her life: men opposing her clear scientific aims because of her gender.

In Alison Reid’s empathetic documentary The Woman who loves Giraffes, Dagg’s tenacity and intellectual purity is contrasted all too often with a patriarchy that resists her attempts to join the scientific community. At first, her career proceeded unimpeded after she won over Matthew and was able to spend time with her giraffes. In the film’s most ravishing scenes, Reid shows gorgeous home movies shot by Dagg of her first encounters with the wonderful long necked creatures. They’re silent, as the giraffes went about their lives, eating grass and fruit while interacting with each other. Dagg is obviously fascinated by everything they do, deriving intense satisfaction from documenting them, through beautiful sketches and films, in their natural terrain.

Upon returning to Canada, Dagg continued her research into the lives of giraffes. She also documented camels, primates and Canadian wildlife though it’s fair to say that her interest in giraffes was her primary concern. She received her doctorate in animal behaviour from the University of Waterloo in 1967 and, in 1972, Dagg naturally applied for a tenured professorship at University of Guelph. To her astonishment, she was turned down. Wilfrid Laurier University also refused to give her a permanent professorship.

If there were a clearer case of sexism in academia, this reviewer would love to see it. The world’s premier expert in giraffes, who had shown an interest in many other animals as well, was turned down from two distinguished institutions for no good reason. By this point, Dagg had already published six books including co-writing The Giraffe: its biology, behaviour and ecology with J. Bristol Foster, the acknowledged “Bible” on the subject. Outraged, Dagg made her case to Ontario’s Human Rights Commission—and lost.

Talented and resourceful, Dagg became a leading feminist writer for decades, publishing many other books. Her tenacity and fight for her rights is well documented by Reid, who mixes archival footage with contemporary interviews to show what happened to Dagg. Reid’s film does have a happy ending: in 2010, a distinguished group of giraffologists brought Dagg back into the fold. We see footage of her acknowledgment as a true pioneer in the study of giraffes to the cheers of an emotional group of supportive scientists. A justified and still brilliant science writer and thinker, Anne Innis Dagg has outlasted most of her enemies—although the man who denied her tenure at Waterloo makes an unrepentant appearance in the film—-and has, in any case, emerged triumphant. Reid’s terrific doc is a must-see: a biography of one of Canada’s greatest scientists, woman or man.

The Woman Who Loves Giraffes opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Nov. 16.