The Current

How a Canadian 'giraffologist' stuck her neck out to fight sexism in academia

Canadian biologist Anne Dagg was denied tenure decades ago, despite her pioneering research on giraffes. She's finally getting recognition in her field — and she wants to make sure young women scientists today don't have to fight the way she did.

Anne Innis Dagg travelled to Africa in 1950s, was first to study giraffes in the wild

Anne Innis Dagg at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in 2016. She saw her first giraffe there as a young child, sparking a lifelong passion for the animals. (Elaisa Vargas/Pursuing Giraffe Adventures Inc.)

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Originally published Nov. 14, 2018

Zoologist Anne Innis Dagg vividly remembers being "devastated" after she was denied tenure at the University of Guelph in 1972.

"I couldn't believe it, really, because I had a list of articles I'd written, and maybe 10 books, and I was being told I wasn't worthy to be a professor?" Dagg told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"I just thought that was terrible." 

Dagg, a Toronto-born biologist, is considered the world's first "giraffologist," and the first researcher to study the animals in the wild in Africa in 1956 — preceding Jane Goodall's study of chimpanzees and Dian Fossey's work with gorillas.

Dagg on a return trip to South Africa in 2015, 50 years after she first travelled there to study giraffes in the wild. (Anne Dixon/Pursuing Giraffe Adventures Inc.)

But her career was thwarted by a sexist academic system, according to new documentary film The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.

Alison Reid, the film's director, says that Dagg's story is not only about her personal loss, but the loss for younger generations who could have benefited from her mentorship.

"One wonders, what has been lost by not allowing Anne to do her work?" 

Passion sparked by zoo visit

Dagg fell in love with giraffes during a childhood visit to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. When she asked for a book on the animals, she was surprised to learn there wasn't one.

"So I thought, 'Well, I'll learn about giraffes and then I'll write one,'" the now 85-year-old said.

She pursued this passion in school, graduating from the University of Toronto in 1955 with a degree in biology. A year later, at 23, she convinced a farmer in South Africa to let her conduct research on his land. On her first night at the Fleur de Lys cattle farm, she saw her first wild giraffe.

"We went to see a little pond, and there was a giraffe, just waiting to get a drink of water. And I looked at it, and thought, 'What a beautiful animal,'" said Dagg.

Left: Dagg as a child at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in 1947, where she saw her first giraffe. Within ten years, she was driving around South Africa, right, studying the animals. (Mary Quayle Innis; Alexander Matthew/Pursuing Giraffe Adventures Inc.)

Over a year, she painstakingly recorded their behaviour. She was the first to chronicle how giraffes fought using their long, strong necks, as well as the first to observe homosexual behaviour among male giraffes. When she returned to Canada, she published 20 research papers.

But when it came to securing tenure, Dagg was rejected.

When she asked why, she received a letter from Keith Ronald, the chair of the committee, saying her research was "not of desirable scientific sophistication."

"She was a good teacher. She had an interesting research program, but it hadn't been fully developed at the point when we came up to the tenure decision," Ronald, who has since passed, said in the film.

"I wouldn't apologize to her. I have nothing to apologize for."

Sandy Middleton, then a colleague in the zoology department, was on the tenure committee, and says Dagg "ran into the old boys' network."

"I felt that she was not given a fair hearing," he said in the documentary.

Dagg went on to apply for another job at Wilfrid Laurier University. She was turned down in favour of a man "with far fewer recommendations than I had," she said.

"To find out that all of this [work with giraffes] is going to be nothing, because I was a woman, it was terrifying and horrible," she told Tremonti.

Dagg in South Africa in 1956. She spent a year on the Fleur de Lys cattle farm, studying wild giraffes. (CBC)

Fighting her way out of the wilderness

Dagg filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission to dispute Wilfrid Laurier University's decision, but eventually lost. She went on to write books and articles on the subjects of sexism and discrimination in academia.

She also co-authored a book about giraffes in 1976, fulfilling a lifelong ambition.

Amy Phelps, the giraffe keeper at the San Francisco Zoo, said that she memorized every bit of Dagg's book as a teenager.

"I was the little girl that that woman was the hero for," Phelps said in the film.

In 2010, she tracked Dagg down and invited her to the inaugural conference of the International Association of Giraffe Care Professionals where ​was presented with the Pioneer Award — now called the Anne Dagg Pioneer Award — for giraffe research. 

Dagg returned to Fleur de Lys farm in 2015. (Anne Dixon/Pursuing Giraffe Adventures Inc.)

For the first time since her research, Dagg returned to the Fleur de Lys farm in 2015.

While Dagg says it was "a wonderful time," it also brought home the fact that giraffe populations in Africa are in decline, as a result of human activity and habitat destruction, she said.

She's not sure that efforts to stop that decline will succeed — but she's encouraged by younger experts and activists who are now advocating for giraffes, many of whom have been inspired by her work

For Dagg, being rediscovered and celebrated by a community of giraffe experts "was just amazing."

"They were really excited, as I was," she said, adding that she would have liked to have had these young scientists as peers during her career.

"I wish I had known them, and I know a lot of them now, and that's wonderful."

Update Feb. 18, 2019: The University of Guelph hosted a screening of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes on Feb. 11, 2019, attended by Dagg herself. The screening included a public apology to Dagg, and the unveiling of the Dr. Anne Innis Dagg Scholarship for Summer Research, a scholarship to be awarded annually to a student in biology.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page.

Written and produced by Alison Masemann.