In 1956, following a childhood dream, a Canadian woman apparently became the first zoologist to conduct a long-term study of large mammals in Africa, years ahead of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and thousands of others. Pursuing Giraffe: a 1950s adventure (Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2006) is not a scholarly work but a memoir. While travelling around southern and eastern Africa in search of her favourite creature, Anne Innis Dagg also observed behaviour of the human animal. Here is a candid, incredulous and good-humoured account of a naive young woman’s encounter with racism and misogyny.
From early childhood Dagg’s foremost ambition in life was to study giraffe. At the age of about 23, armed with an MA in genetics of mice from University of Toronto, she set out for South Africa to do just that. She went with no support except her own financing and the goodwill of people along the way. Her intensive study of giraffe behaviour occurred on a large farm, Fleur de Lys. Alexander Matthew, the white manager, was at first dubious about allowing a woman to stay in his house and conduct the work. However, he shared her fascination with wildlife and the two eventually became close friends. Matthew’s willingness to accept her—but refusal to extend the slightest friendship to native Africans who worked with and surrounded him—presented one of Dagg’s deepest bewilderments.
After four months she left Fleur de Lys and travelled to Kenya in hope of studying different races of giraffe, but was unable to find support there. She gives an entertaining account of people she met along the way, from mates in the government office where she worked in Dar es Salaam to the guide and porters who accompanied her up Mount Kilimanjaro, to various colourful characters thrown together during her arduous return to South Africa over land.
After returning to Canada, Dagg wrote at least 20 scientific papers on giraffe over many years, achieved her PhD from University of Waterloo, and finally completed a definitive text in 1976, The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior and Ecology. Film produced by her and Matthew at Fleur de Lys proved valuable in studying the gait of giraffes.
“Being first does not necessarily pay off,” she says, “because I was never able to find a permanent job in zoology, unlike most of my successors.”
No university would accept a full-time female professor in the 1960s and 1970s, so Dagg focused her enthusiasm on research, eventually extending her interests to Ontario mammals, sexual bias in research, feminism and Canadian women authors. In 1983, moved by occurrences of prejudice against gay students, she published one of the first surveys of homosexual behaviour in animals. She had first witnessed erotic tenderness and sexual activity between a pair of male giraffes in late 1954 at Fleur de Lys, but at the time this young woman dared speak of it to no one.
Dagg was a pioneer. It is surprising her work and name are not more widely known, but she shared the fortune of many remarkable women trying to forge a career 50 years ago. Fortunately she has lately given herself credit with this light-hearted and engaging account.