SIFF 2019 Review: ‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’

Rating: B

I am well-read in the field of natural history, so I was surprised that I had never heard of Anne Innis Dagg, giraffe specialist.  And that is the point of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes:  This woman was denied the recognition that she deserved by, allegedly, a good-ole-boy network of professors during the 1970s at the University of Guelph in Ontario.  They refused her tenure.  She tried to get a job at the University of Waterloo where her husband taught physics, but they refused to hire her because she was a married woman.

And so this woman with a Ph.D., and the top expert on giraffes in the world, disappeared from the academic world she loved, and fell into obscurity.

How did she become the top giraffe expert in the world?  In 1956, as a young 20-something woman, she went solo to South Africa to do field work with reticulated giraffes.  Her field work not only predated the field studies of giants in the natural history world—Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey—but may have been the first study ever of a wild animal in the field.  Her studies were first published by the highly respected London Zoological Society, and she eventually wrote several books about giraffes including a book co-authored by J. Bristol Foster called The Giraffe:  Its Biology, Behavior and Ecology.

Why are we hearing about her now?  Amy Phelps and other giraffe specialists had not forgotten about Anne because the above-mentioned book, despite its current age, is still the premier book written about giraffes, and a must-read for all giraffe specialists.  They sought to find Anne, not an easy task, but have brought her back into the fold, giving a life-time achievement award at a giraffe conference.  Though most of her adult life was spent in Ontario, she currently lives in British Columbia.

This documentary was very interesting. The director Alison Reid told Anne’s story with words spoken from her field diary and old letters, with old film made by Anne in South Africa, by interviews of other giraffologists, and former professors—both friends and “the enemy.” 

We see Anne’s rebirth as she discovers she is not forgotten and as she gets to travel back to Africa to the Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya and to the place where it all began:  Fleur de Lys Citrus Estates in Hoedspruit, South Africa, once owned by Mr. Alexander Matthews, where she did her field studies.  We also hear about Anne’s efforts, starting back in the ‘70s, to gain equality in academia for women professors in Canada.  The latter part of her story is important, but I was more drawn to her giraffe studies than to her political efforts.  As a biographical documentary, though, I found it much more interesting than most in this genre, and am happy that Anne Innis Dagg has justly been brought into the limelight.This movie was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF).

By Karen Samdahl
Related categories: SIFF