In 1956, before anyone, man or woman had made such a trip, 23-year-old Canadian biologist, Dr. Anne Innis Dagg, made an unprecedented solo journey to South Africa to become the first person in the world to study giraffes in the wild. 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.
In 1972, having published 20 research papers as an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Guelph, the Dean of the university, denied her tenure, preventing her from holding a permanent position there. 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. These refusals were a critical blow to her career and 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 into the fold, but finally celebrated for her work. While toting her memoir recounting her seminal journey, Pursuing Giraffe: A 1950s Adventure, Anne caught the attention of filmmaker Alison Reid which resulted in the award-winning feature documentary The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.
The subsequent publicity surrounding the film and Anne’s books has boosted her notoriety to a global level. Anne Innis Dagg officially received apologies from the academic institutions that once shunned her along with numerous Honorary Doctorates. In 2019 the University of Guelph established the Dr. Anne Innis Dagg Summer Research Scholarship awarded annually to one female undergraduate student majoring in either Zoology or Biodiversity. In 2020 the Governor General of Canada awarded Anne with the nation’s highly coveted designation of merit, the Order of Canada. Anne continues to write books, contribute to research and is an active member of her community in Waterloo, Canada. As well, she is in the process of setting up a foundation in her name both in Canada and the US to raise funds in the continuing effort for giraffe conservation in Africa.
Here is TVO TeachOntario In Conversation with Dr. Anne Innis Dagg
Ever since I was a little girl, I had a passion for animals, especially giraffes and knew that I loved them and would spend my life studying them. I had a drive to understand animal behaviour and why they do what they do. All through grade school and high school, I had a thirst to find out as much as I could about giraffes. Consequently, I traveled to Africa in order to see them in the wild when I was in my early 20s.
Do you have memorable experiences of studying animals as a child?
I saw my first giraffe at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago where I was visiting with my mother from Toronto when I was four years old. Something frightened the few animals as I gazed at them so that they cantered across their cage. I was entranced. I immediately began collecting pictures of them and drawing them and collecting toy giraffes.
What was it about giraffes that resonated with you?
I love the regal stately way they move and the way they look around themselves with casual interest. They are willing to look at various people, but no one knows what they are thinking.
How do you suggest educators can foster an interest in animals and animal stewardship in their students?
Encourage your students to notice all the elements of nature that are around them including the trees, grass, ground, leaves, insects, birds and mammals. Ask them to pick a bird or animal that they really love and study how this creature behaves each day - such as what do they eat, where do they sleep, how do the male or female differ, how long will they live and other interesting facts. Paying attention to the world around them will make the students far more engaged citizens as they grow up and contribute to the world.
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