For the love of giraffes: Documentary celebrates groundbreaking Canadian scientist

Anne Innis Dagg is feeding a giraffe at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Photo: Elaisa Vargas

As a three year old, Anne Innis Dagg says, she was taken for the first time to the Chicago Zoo by her American-born mother where she was especially captivated by the giraffes.

It was “love at first sight!” she told ARTSFILE in an interview by email. She returned to the zoo again but that first trip sparked an interest in these majestic creatures that burns strongly still some 83 years later.

The daughter of the legendary Canadian academic Harold Innis and the writer of fiction and history Mary Quayle Innis would go on to become a pioneering zoologist, biologist and author. She is credited with being the first to study the species in the wild.

This is a photo of Anne Innis Dagg in her vehicle in South Africa in 1956.

In the community of scientists who study this now endangered animal she is a legend.

And yet, despite all her many accomplishments, she was denied tenure at the University of Guelph, a slight for which the school has now apologized.

This story, which seems so contemporary, is the subject of a major documentary called The Woman Who Loved Giraffes, directed by Alison Reid. The film will be screened at the ByTowne Cinema starting Jan. 18 with Dagg on hand to answer questions.

Alison Reid and Anne Innis Dagg photobombed by a giraffe in South Africa. Photo: Anne Dixon

For director Alison Reid the creation of this film has been a five year long labour of love and respect.

“There was a radio documentary on CBC and I heard that and became familiar with her story. Then I read her book Pursuing Giraffes and was captivated by her story,” Reid said in an interview.

“I have never made documentary before. I’m from the scripted world of the film industry. I originally approached Anne to option her book and make a scripted film about it.

“When I found out she was going back to Africa for the first time in more than half a century this is historic, we just had to go.”

Dagg said that when she was contacted by Reid she was surprised.

“I had not thought that anyone would be interested. I had told people before, for many many years, and none were. Sometimes I think they thought I was lying.”

But Reid wasn’t lying. She got a crew together and went. “And I’ve been following her around for five years now.”

The details of Dagg’s story emerged over this period. Reid says she still intends to make a scripted film because there is so much of Dagg’s story that they could not address in the film.

Dagg was in Africa before Jane Goodall started her research on chimpanzees but the story is less well known. It is a puzzler.

“I asked all the giraffe scientists that same question,” Reid said.

“She is so iconic in the giraffe community and that hasn’t translated into the general public yet. It’s funny I see it as both Anne and the species she loves have been flying under the radar. But now their stars are rising.

This image is from film footage shot in South Africa in 1956. That is Anne Innis Dagg’s car. Photo: Alexander Matthew

“People are starting to become aware of giraffes and starting to become aware of Anne. But certainly elephants and rhinos seem to get all the attention in terms of their plummeting numbers.

“Still there are far fewer giraffes in Africa than elephants.”

The animals are now classified as vulnerable to extinction so aware is rising, Reid added. They are hunted by mankind for food.

Seeing one in the wild is unbelievable, she said.

“They are so beautiful. The way they move is so beautiful. I think that is one of the reasons Anne became so enamorated with them. They seem almost prehistoric.”

The filmmakers followed Dagg to South Africa to the cattle ranch called Fleur de Lys where she was originally based in the 1950s. The ranch is no longer. Fleur de Lys is much reduced and today the home is a bed and breakfast. But in what was the ranch land, giraffes are still present.

There is film footage from 1956, starring a 23 year old Dagg and so Reid filmed her in those locations as an 80 year old.

Today, Reid feels the film is helping get the world out about the plight of these animals.

“Seeing audiences respond so strongly to Anne’s story, to get up on their feet and clap for her at the end feels really good and I know Anne feels the same way to be finally getting the recognition she deserves.”

This photo was taken by Anne Innis Dagg’s mother in 1947.

One of the aspects of her distinguished career was a decision by the University of Guelph to deny Dagg a tenured position as a professor. That rankled.

“It seemed, and often still seems, that men don’t want to think that women can be as good as men in science. Let alone better,” Dagg said. But she persevered because “it was what I wanted to do!”

When you discover Dagg’s story it seems so contemporary but in many ways she was a feminist before the word was coined and an environmentalist before it moved to the forefront of our collective consciousness.

“She was ahead of her time in so many ways,” Reid said.

These days the film is being screened across Canada. It was a hit at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto last fall and it has grown from that launch.

“We are going to as many Q&As as we can.” Or they will Skype in so audiences can meet and see Anne in person.

These days Reid is directing a new TV series in Newfoundland called Hudson and Rex about a cop and his dog.

As soon as she finishes that up in the next few weeks, she says she will start writing a script for her next project on Dagg.

The film The Woman Who Loved Giraffes will be screened at the ByTowne Cinema on Jan. 18, 19 and 20. For showtimes and information, please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.