People & Culture

The curious, extraordinary life of Anne Innis Dagg

The Canadian woman who was first in the world to study giraffes in the wild — and is still considered one of the planet’s foremost experts on the species — is only now getting her due
  • Aug 13, 2019
  • 2,498 words
  • 10 minutes
Anne Innis Dagg feeding a giraffe at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo in 2015 Expand Image

The first time I spotted her, Anne Innis Dagg was sitting alone on a small settee in the middle of a springtime party at a posh downtown Toronto hotel, oblivious to the glittering swirl surrounding her. While many of the other guests were in silks and heels, Innis Dagg wore slacks, sensible shoes and a short-sleeved yellow T-shirt decorated with giraffes. Rather than nibbling on canapés, schmoozing and sipping good wine, she was absorbed in a tattered newspaper.

That’s Innis Dagg in a nutshell: she marches to her own beat. And that has led her to a curious life of extraordinary scientific firsts and extraordinary obscurity. Widely considered the founder of giraffe science, she was the first to study the giraffe in the wild; the first zoologist to study any African animal in the wild; an inventor of the scientific discipline of behavioural biology; and, more than six decades and copious academic papers and books later, still one of the world’s leading experts on the giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis.

“You can’t be a giraffe researcher unless you’ve read her book,” says Fred Bercovitch, a zoologist who is executive director of the Texas-based group Save the Giraffes.

But partly because she has been in the vanguard — and partly because she chose to study an eccentric ungulate rather than a cuddly primate — those accomplishments have not brought her decades of fame. While generations of zoologists have relied on her scientific work and quoted her in their publications, the woman herself has lived resolutely out of the limelight in Waterloo, Ont. She has languished in part-time academic jobs with no tenure, applying her bacon-slicer of a mind to studies on everything from feminism to literature to camels to animal rights.

More curiously still, the trajectory of the giraffe has mirrored the trajectory of its first scientist. For the past 60 years, the giraffe has languished, too, largely overlooked by researchers while the fate of other African mammals has galvanized public outcry.

Until now. In 2016, the international scientific community discovered, to its astonishment, that the giraffe is vulnerable to extinction. As conservation scientists race to save the species — and several of the nine or so subspecies that are in terrible peril — Innis Dagg, now 86, is at last getting her due. And so is the giraffe.

Anne Innis Dagg at home in Waterloo, Ontario Expand Image
Innis Dagg at home in Waterloo, Ont. (Photo: Peter Power/Canadian Geographic)

Innis Dagg’s long love affair with the giraffe began in 1936 when she was three. The daughter of University of Toronto economic historian Harold Innis and writer and historian Mary Quayle Innis, Innis Dagg was on holiday in Chicago that year and went to the Brookfield Zoo.

While other toddlers were entranced with the panda bears and chimpanzees, Innis Dagg was riveted by the giraffes.

“Perhaps their height, especially from a small child’s perspective, impressed me; perhaps it was the rush of movement when something startled them and they cantered in a flurry of necks and legs across their paddock,” she writes in her 2006 memoir Pursuing Giraffe.

Obsession ensued. And endured. Once she got to the University of Toronto in 1951, she chose to study science, unlike her female friends who planted themselves firmly in the humanities. It was a strategy to study the giraffe. And once she got her first degree, armed with a gold medal in biology, she wrote to officials in Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Uganda to arrange field studies. Among them was the famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who would launch Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees four years later.

No dice. Why would anybody want to study the giraffe? Even her professors laughed at her. Go to Africa? To study giraffes in the wild? As a woman? Not even men were doing that then.

Innis Dagg slogged through a master’s degree in mouse genetics at the University of Toronto, still searching for a way to study giraffes, when luck struck. Through a husband-and-wife pair of academics in South Africa, she heard of a cattle farmer, Alexander Matthew, whose spread was home to wild giraffes. He was open to having a researcher look at them. The hitch: he assumed she was a man.

Undaunted, Innis Dagg, then 23, set sail for London, then South Africa, dashing off a note to Matthew at the last minute to explain that she was female. It was 1956. She had little money. No backers. No institutional affiliation or academic supervisor. No experience in field research or how to conduct it. No certainty that Matthew would accept her. No means of getting to his remote farm if he did. No understanding of how apartheid, recently enforced by the National Party, was playing out in South African society, including for an unaccompanied, unmarried white woman.

None of it mattered to her. Pursuing the giraffe was the only thing she cared about.

“I didn’t think I was a rebel,” she says. “I just know when I want to do something, and I do it.” She pauses, then adds matter-of-factly: “It’s quite a simple explanation.”

Anne Innis Dagg in 1956, the year she became the first to record many giraffe behaviours in her notes Expand Image
Anne Innis Dagg in 1956, the year she became the first to record many giraffe behaviours in her notes. (Photo: Alexander Matthew)

I have tracked Innis Dagg to the archives at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, where her papers, and those of her famous mother, are stored. We are waiting for the archivist to bring out the African notebook that describes her very first observations of giraffes in the wild.

In the end, the farmer — whom she still refers to as Mr. Matthew all these years later — finally gave in and allowed her to study his giraffes. She was so determined, he said. And so far from home. He also said she could live in his farmhouse despite worries that it would appear unseemly because she was unmarried and his wife and daughters were away. She bought a hunch-backed little green Ford, drove two long days to his farm and began six months of 14-hour days watching giraffes. It was, she says, heaven.

She was finally with the wild giraffe, one of evolution’s most extravagant pranks. The tallest land animal, a giraffe has legs so long that it can step over most humans. Their towering necks are not rigid, but flexible enough to coil around the throat of a competitor with the ease of a boa constrictor. The male’s skull weighs three times that of the female — the better to use as a battering ram against opponents. Their mighty hearts tip the scales at nearly eight kilograms. Comical, knobby horns stick out on top of their heads and triangular ears often point parallel to the ground. Their tongues are deep purple, tethered to the back of the mouth with a band of delicate pink and capable of curling around a twig the way a New World monkey’s tail clasps a vine.

Giraffes are diffident. Despite sharing the African savannah with so many other creatures, giraffes don’t behave as though they are part of a community. “They do what they want and couldn’t care less what others think,” says Innis Dagg.

In 1956, when Innis Dagg began studying giraffes, so little was known about them or other African mammals that her pipesmoking colleague Rosalie (Griff) Ewer of Rhodes University used to screech to a halt when she saw roadkill and load it into her truck, rotted or not, so she could study the corpses. When it came to giraffes, no one formally trained in science had actually sat still and watched the same individuals for months on end, trying to figure out the basics: what they ate and when, who they mated with, how the herds were structured.

Innis Dagg broke all that ground, discovering among other things that giraffes eat day and night, that they are constantly on the move but not migratory, that males spend a lot of time sniffing and sipping females’ urine to see whether they are keen to mate and that males are fond of homosexual sex. All of it transformed the way science saw the creatures.

The archivist arrives with a trolley of material. Here is the first notebook from 1956, a faded blue Tudor scribbler, its cover boasting an image of St. George, that fabled preserver of princesses, mounted on his charge, slaying a dragon. (Privately, I wonder if the image is one of Innis Dagg’s dry jokes; surely no 1950s maiden was less in need of rescue.)

Innis Dagg has written “GOOD GIRAFFE NOTES 1” in the upper right corner. Inside, the lined, yellowed pages hold the research she had fought so hard and travelled so far to conduct, starting with her first full day of careful observations. She was euphoric that day, she says.

Thurs. Sept. 6. Sunny
9.00 Went to G. borehole. Saw 2
giraffes in C9 walking about,
about 200 yds. from troughs.
Male and female …

Today in the archives, more than six decades later, her eyes fill with tears with the shock of seeing her words again after such a long time. Being in Africa then was her golden age. She was young. She had a whole continent to explore. A whole life ahead of her. She was doing exactly what she wanted.

In the years since, she’s given birth to three children, outlived a husband and a subsequent partner, written more than 20 books and been stymied professionally. She earned her PhD at Waterloo in 1967 with the idea of becoming a professor and going off to Africa every summer to study the giraffe, as she might have done had she been born male.

But when it came time to find a permanent teaching job and tenure at any of the universities she applied to in southern Ontario, it was, again, no dice. Men got the jobs instead, even those who had not published as many papers. One science dean declared, in 1972, that he would never give tenure to a married woman. She made do with part-time work, scraping together money to continue publishing about the giraffe on the side. But in 1956 when she cracked open this notebook for the first time, all of this was yet to come.

“Things seemed so much easier then,” she says.

Anne Innis Dagg?s field notebook from 1956 Expand Image
The cover and a page of Innis Dagg’s first notebook from 1956. 

The 19th century was unkind to African wildlife. Europeans arrived with guns and trophy-lust. Nevertheless, in 1908 the British big game hunter Frederick Courteney Selous wrote of the giraffe: “Throughout the greater part of this immense range, these magnificent, strangely beautiful creatures will, in my opinion, continue to live and thrive for centuries yet to come.”

Not so. In 1800, South Africa alone had thousands of giraffes, but a century later, just as Selous was making his pronouncement, the animals were so rare there that Boers, who liked to use giraffe hide to make cattle whips, had to import skins from East Africa, Innis Dagg writes in her 2014 book Giraffe: Biology, Behaviour and Conservation. They appear to have gone extinct in at least seven African countries.

In 2010, the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species clocked the giraffe as a species of least concern for extinction. Just six years later, it was forced to downgrade the giraffe by two levels, saying the species is vulnerable to extinction. In 2018, they listed two subspecies (Nubian and Kordofan) as critically endangered.

Today, there are fewer than 100,000 giraffes, a drop of as much as 40 per cent in three decades. And those numbers continue to fall. Even now, giraffes are being poached, hunted for food and driven out of prime landscape by farming, settlement, war and mines.

Scientists missed the trend. Their attention was focused on other endangered African icons: lions, elephants, black rhinos, cheetahs, chimpanzees and Eastern gorillas. Even Innis Dagg was taken aback.

“In my wildest dreams I never thought there would be no more giraffe,” she says, quaintly using the singular to mean the plural. “I thought they would always be there. You just knew.”

Innis Dagg with fans at a wildlife conference in Toronto Expand Image
Innis Dagg signing autographs for fans at an international wildlife conference in Toronto in 2018. (Photo: Tom Sandler/Canadian Geographic)

I have caught up with Innis Dagg again, this time at the 2018 North American Congress for Conservation Biology on a sweltering late July day in Toronto. It’s a who’s who of scientists on the front lines of saving species from extinction. Pulled into action by the crisis, Innis Dagg has helped organize a symposium on the giraffe.

The message is tough. Despite the steep decline in giraffe numbers, fewer than 10 scientists in the world are “boots on the ground” studying the species, Francois Deacon, a wildlife biologist at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa, tells the crowd.

“We are running out of time,” he says.

Part of the recovery plan revolves around the resurrection of Innis Dagg’s story. Until about 2010, when the international community of zookeepers joyfully tracked her down and invited her to come to a conference in Phoenix to pick up an award, Innis Dagg had no idea there was a giraffology world, much less that she was a treasured part of it.

Soon, to her utter astonishment, it embraced her. In 2013, already in her 80s, she finally got back to Africa for the first time for the giraffe — she was there in the 1970s for the camel — taking in a conference in Nairobi. In 2015, when the IUCN’s shocking giraffe numbers came out, she went back again to visit scientists and the farm where she had worked in the 1950s, accompanied by Canadian filmmaker Alison Reid.

The result of that sojourn is Reid’s documentary about her life: The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. It has been shown in limited theatre releases and at festivals since September 2018, to consistent standing ovations, and will eventually hit the small screen (it’s available now on iTunes).

The recognition has led to calls for Dagg to get the Order of Canada and honorary degrees from the universities that denied her tenure. In February, the University of Guelph formally apologized for refusing to give her tenure and donated money to three of her favourite giraffe charities.

Frailer now, but game for more adventure, she is planning yet another trip to Africa. It is redemption, of a type.


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