Leading the Way
Blazing Her Trail
Anne INNIS Dagg, PhD, wrote the book on giraffes. Several, actually. They are counted among the twenty-three that the BSS Old Girl has authored since 1972.
But author is merely one title on Dr. Dagg’s CV. She is also a biologist, a zoologist, a professor, an advocate, and – as of relatively recently – the star of a film. Alison Reid’s documentary, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, chronicles Dr. Dagg’s remarkable life, from the moment she fell in love with the animal as a toddler, to her current work advocating for the species’ conservation.
Dr. Dagg is an inspiring example of a BSS alumna who has lived her life demonstrating courage, dedication, and resilience, and BSS is bursting with pride in celebration of her and her accomplishments.
Now 86 years old, Dr. Dagg is any documentarian’s dream come true, as her story begs to be put to film. In 1956, she travelled alone to apartheid-era South Africa to study giraffes in the wild. “I didn’t think of myself as a scientist,” she reflects. “Just as someone who really wanted to know more about giraffes.” Nevertheless, she returned to Canada with a year’s worth of field research and pursued a doctorate at the University of Waterloo.
Dr. Dagg is credited with being the first person to study the behaviour of wild animals, with her trip pre-dating those of primatologists Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. Combined with the fact that she documented every step of her journey through detailed notes, letters, and film stock – all of which are interspersed in the film – The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is a captivating look at her life.
Before making history, Dr. Dagg spent five years at BSS, where she took physics and chemistry and played on as many sports teams as she could. As she put it, “I don’t think I ever went home right after school.” Between BSS and the support she received at home, Dr. Dagg grew up “not knowing that men and women weren’t equal.” Even once the realities of gender inequality set in, she was clever in her efforts to outsmart the system: She signed her letters “A. Innis” to win over the farmer who would host her in South Africa. By the time they met in person, she was too far along on her journey for him to turn her away. As she says in the film, “If I wanted to do it, I did it.”
It wasn’t until Dr. Dagg sought a tenured position in academia that she encountered a roadblock she was unable to overcome, though she put up an impressive fight. Denied tenure by the University of Guelph, she challenged the decision, asking to be reconsidered given her impressive qualifications. Despite her record of academic publications and proof of the quality of her teaching from students who could attest to it, Dr. Dagg was unable to persuade the tenure committee to reconsider its decision. She then applied to Wilfrid Laurier University, only to lose to a lesser-qualified man. The University of Waterloo had already specified that women in biology would not be accepted as professors. She filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, but that, too, proved fruitless. “I remember crying all the way home,” Dr. Dagg says of the University of Guelph incident, in a devastating chapter of Ms. Reid’s film.
These experiences may have diverted Dr. Dagg’s career – at least the one she had envisioned for herself – but it would be a mistake not to recognize the silver linings in the story. Beginning in the 1980s, Dr. Dagg’s writing began to explicitly address women’s issues, especially related to gender equality throughout universities across Canada. A remarkable sequence in the film also speaks to just how many researchers and zoologists have been inspired by her work – even if she wasn’t aware of them until 2010 when they invited her to the International Association of Giraffe Care Professionals’ first conference. There, she was presented with what is now known as the Anne Dagg Pioneer Award.
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes has left audiences in awe of the vital work that Dr. Dagg has been doing all of her life. “For the first time in my career, I’m receiving standing ovations,” she said, adding that she has enjoyed giving lots of hugs and photographs. The film has also prompted a formal apology from the University of Guelph, which recently announced a new research scholarship in her name. She called this an “excellent solution.”
Asked what advice she would give young women, aspiring scientists or not, her response was immediate: “I never listened to advice that I didn’t want to listen to.” Institutional sexism may have changed the course of her career, but – owing in part to Reid’s film – it won’t limit her legacy by any means.
Sydney URBANEK ’13 is a freelance culture writer and incoming Cinema Studies MA student at the University of Toronto.