Canadian biologist Anne Innis Dagg is an intrepid pioneer who made groundbreaking discoveries about wild giraffes.
But when she embarked in the 1950s on her lifelong study of these long-necked creatures in the wild, she had to stick her own neck out to face the challenges of sexism and working in the midst of apartheid, in a habitat rife with dangers like venomous snakes.
'Anne Dagg is the Jane Goodall of giraffe research.' - John Doherty, Queen's University Belfast
She says she fell in love with giraffes the first time she set eyes on them. That was during a visit to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago with her mother at the age of about three.
"I was entranced by them and have loved them ever since," she says. Later, in the 1950s, she would become the first scientist to study these creatures in the wild, but also the first person to study animal behaviour in the wild in Africa.
- COMING UP: Giraffes: The Forgotten Giants airs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5 on CBC-TV's The Nature of Things
Growing up in Toronto, Innis Dagg recalls drawing pictures and writing stories about giraffes and presenting them to her class at school. As an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, she chose biology in order to study giraffes. At that time, "they hadn't been studied. There were no books or really much information on them," she says.
In 1955, Innis Dagg graduated at the top of her class, earning a gold-medal in biology. It came with a $500 cash prize. Combined with some personal savings, that was enough for her to embark on her dream of going to Africa to study giraffes in the wild.
But carving out a niche to investigate the behaviour of giraffes in the wild was not easy for a woman graduating from university in the 1950s. Women scientists were a rarity, and when Innis finally arrived in South Africa in 1956, it was still several years before Jane Goodall would travel to Tanzania to begin her lifelong work on chimpanzees.
Innis Dagg was to become for giraffes what Goodall has become for chimps — a groundbreaking researcher and champion for their conservation.
But she almost didn't get to see her beloved giraffes in the wild at all.
After graduating, she embarked on an extensive letter-writing effort to secure a place to stay in South Africa — a home base from which to begin her studies of wild giraffes.
Eventually she did secure a place to stay, but not until she concealed her identity by signing the letters with her surname preceded by the initial "A" rather than "Anne."
Upon arriving by ship in Africa, she could disguise her gender no longer, and once the married farmer who had agreed to billet her realized she was a woman, he turned her away.
But Innis Dagg was not a woman that gave up easily. Her persistence eventually secured her a place to stay at the farm near Kruger National Park.
Each day, she would spend about 10 hours in the field, watching giraffes from her car and taking careful notes. Reflecting on the first time she headed out to watch these gangly giants, she recalls feeling "euphoric" about realizing her dream.
Even so, there were challenges. There was the time her car terrifyingly stalled in the middle of nowhere on a rutted road at night. There were venomous snakes and lions about.
And it was the era of apartheid, a system she found horrifying.
"I was told not to have anything to do with black people," she says. Instead, she made friends with native South Africans whenever possible, and offered them rides in her car.
Observed animals from car
From that car, her careful observations of giraffe behaviour were the first of their kind for any African animal.
She watched what they ate, tagging and later identifying the more than 30 tree species they browsed. She learned that males test the fertility status of females by tasting their urine. She saw the jockeying for status amongst males, who sometimes fought using their heads to hit one another. She was also the first to observe homosexual behaviour in male giraffes.
After that year observing giraffes from 1956-57, she returned to Canada, married Ian Dagg, and had children. She also began earning a PhD and tried to gain employment as a professor, but discovered that at that time, "universities routinely refused, if possible, to hire women."
But Innis Dagg was undeterred. She worked as an independent researcher in both biology and feminism, prolifically publishing scientific papers and books. Eventually she returned to those giraffe observations documented in her journals and weekly letters home to her mother. Those observations are published in her 2006 book Pursuing Giraffe. She is the author of 19 other books.
Her work has helped to inspire a new generation of giraffe researchers. In the new The Nature of Things documentary Giraffes: The Forgotten Giants, John Doherty, a giraffe researcher at Queen's University Belfast, says that during his master's degree on giraffes, Innis Dagg's book "was under my arm wherever I went, and I read it cover to cover."
He added, "Anne Dagg is the Jane Goodall of giraffe research. She was the pioneer."
In Giraffes: The Forgotten Giants, we see giraffes through the eyes of Innis Dagg and researchers like Doherty who are taking her foundational work forward.
It's a timely look at this animal, still common in children's picture books, but increasingly uncommon and threatened in the wild.
As long legged, stretched-necked giants with block-patterned coats, giraffes look "about as likely as a unicorn," says Doherty in the film.
In his introduction to the documentary, The Nature of Things host David Suzuki describes these animals as "both sweet and silly," adding that, "maybe that's why these grand creatures never seem to earn our respect."
Giraffes: The Forgotten Giants was commissioned by CBC's The Nature of Things, and produced by Nomad Films in partnership with the CBC.