Watch & Listen

Dr. Anne Innis Dagg

Giraffes & Feminism

Dr. Anne Innis Dagg Ph.D. has been referred to as “the Jane Goodall of giraffes” and is recognized as having made significant contributions to the study of giraffes. Dagg first became interested in giraffes as a young child while visiting Illinois’ Brookfield Zoo with her mother.

During the mid-1950s Dagg traveled alone to South Africa to study the behavior of giraffes out of captivity. The trip was prompted by what she described in a 1974 interview with the Toronto Star as a “tremendous urge to see giraffes roaming free, instead of being cooped up in zoos.” She contacted government officials in various African countries requesting permission to study the animal in their natural habitat and received only rejections, some noting the work wasn’t a suitable undertaking for a woman.

Ahead of the trip, Dagg changed tactics by adjusting how her letters were signed. She contacted citrus farmer Alexander Matthew, who owned land near Kruger National Park in close proximity to roaming giraffes, to ask for permission to visit and study giraffes. Her request was granted based on Matthew’s assumption that the letter, signed A. Innis, was written by a man. Upon Dagg’s arrival, he told her she would have to return to Canada because allowing her to bunk with the male farmhands was, for him, out of the question. Rather than returning home, she traveled to Grahamstown where she spent her time researching giraffes at the Rhodes University library. She began writing to Matthew multiple times a week for several weeks asking for permission to return. He eventually agreed, allowing her to stay in his family’s home in exchange for clerical services over the course of her stay. In turn, Dagg was given access to 33,000 hectares of groves and bush frequented by 95 giraffes.

Dagg spent upward of ten hours a day in the field taking extensive notes about all aspects of giraffe behavior, including what they ate and how they interacted, and was the first to note male giraffes engaging in homosexual behavior. In addition to her research at Fleur de Lys, she traveled to Tanganyika and Kenya to observe other giraffe populations over the course of her stay. Her research marked the first time a scientist set out to study giraffes in the wild. In 1965, due to the unique nature of her research, she was invited to appear on the American television show, To Tell the Truth. Upon returning to Canada, she began Ph.D. in animal behavior at the University of Waterloo, which she completed in 1967 under the supervision of Anton de Vos. Her thesis work analyzed and compared the gaits of giraffes and other large mammals. Dagg’s field research was eventually published in The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior, and Ecology (1976). Co-authored with ecologist J. Bristol Foster, the book is recognized by researchers as the foundational text on giraffes.

Dagg has published over 60 refereed scientific papers on such subjects as homosexuality, mammal behavior, sociobiology, feminism, sexism at universities, and the rights of animals. She has also written 20 books on related topics. Although best known for her research on the giraffe, Dagg has studied other animals including camels, primates, and Canadian wildlife. She has taught courses in mammology and wildlife management, among other topics, as an assistant professor with the Department of Zoology at the University of Guelph from 1968 to 1972. The remainder of her career was spent affiliated with the University of Waterloo’s Integrated Studies program, later renamed Independent Studies. From 1986 to 1989 she served as the Academic Director of the program before transitioning to an academic advisor role.

Dagg has also written about the gendered framing of animal behavior. In 1985, she raised concerns about the impact of sociobiology in scholarly publications and reported to the general public about the social behavior of animals in her book Harems and Other Horrors: Sexual Bias in Behavioral Biology. Of particular concern was what she noted as an increase in the anthropomorphizing of animal behavior such as inaccurate, human-based, language to describe animal behavior such as female mating behavior being described as coy or flirtatious.

In 1975, Dagg was recognized by the Museum of Natural History as part of an exhibit dedicated to their achievements in the natural sciences. Dagg was awarded the Batke Human Rights Award in 1984 by the K-W Status of Women in recognition of her work in the fields of social justice and gender equality. She received a Lane Anderson Award in 2017 in recognition of her non-fiction children’s book 5 Giraffes, alongside author Caroline Fox. She donated the $10,000 prize that accompanied the award to giraffe conservation efforts. In 2019 Dagg was named an Honorary Member of the Canadian Society of Zoologists in recognition of her contributions to Canadian zoology.