Anne Dagg still dedicated to giraffes, decades after first encounter

·7 min read

WATERLOO — Anne Dagg arrived at Fleur de Lys Ranch in 1956.

She was 23, and determined to study wild giraffes.

She had driven alone for about 1000 miles through apartheid-era South Africa in a second-hand Ford Prefect with a radiator that needed to be topped up almost every 20 minutes.

Then the car she called Camelo, after the giraffe’s scientific name, Camelopardalis, broke down in the dark five miles from her destination. “I started to pray,” she says. “I had to walk, I was so scared.”

In a letter to home, she described how she got out of the car, locked it and started to walk along the road in the dark. She couldn’t even see in front of her.

But the trial was worth it.

“The next morning I saw my first giraffe,” she says with glee.

Dagg stayed at Fleur de Lys with her host, Alexander Matthew, for most of the year, observing the giraffes and taking careful notes. “It was heaven,” she says.

When Dagg returned to Canada, she earned her PhD in animal behaviour at the University of Waterloo.

But she was a woman, and in 1972, after working as an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Guelph and publishing 20 research papers, she was denied tenure by the dean.

“I was really angry,” she says. “I was just really annoyed that so many people really didn’t care about the actual information, they just wanted to make sure it wasn’t a woman.”

After that, day-to-day life in Waterloo was sometimes surreal for Dagg.

“It was weird because no one was ever interested,” she says. “I’d say, ‘I’ve been up Mount Kilimanjaro,’ and there’d be a pause, and you would know they’re thinking, ‘what a liar.’”

“I just went with it because there’s nothing else I could do.”

Dagg channelled her energy into promoting equality for women and protection for animals, and raised her children with the same values. She continued to write, while working part time in the Independent Studies department at the University of Waterloo.

Every Valentine’s Day she took her daughter, Mary, with her to protest the sale of furs in front of department stores in Kitchener, Waterloo and Toronto.

They also protested when a circus came to town.

“A couple circuses, Barnum and Bailey at the time, came to the Kitchener Auditorium,” says Mary. “I remember the two of us went out with a bunch of other people from similar organizations.”

They shouldn’t be treating the elephants and tigers that way, she says. “You can have a circus without using animals, so we would protest that.”

Mary also remembers her mother petitioning to ensure the animals at Waterloo Park were treated well, especially the bears and cougar.

“They used to have these tiny little cages,” says Mary. “I remember mom just pushing and pushing with The Record. ... Just saying, you’ve got to get these poor animals out of these cages, they’re just so small.”

Today, Dagg lives in the Luther Village on the Park community not far from where she and her husband raised their children.

An elegant glass environmental award crowds a shelf with a Boggle board game. Robert Bateman paintings share the walls with children’s drawings and a careful giraffe sketch from a teenage fan. A stuffed giraffe takes up a whole corner, while her Doctor of Science degree from the University of Waterloo casually leans against the couch. A giraffe charm hangs from a light fixture and catches the sun.

“A lot of them have just been given, which is very kind,” she says. “Then you have to find a home for them.”

In her office are neat rows of books: all the books Dagg wrote or collaborated on during her years pursuing science on her own. “It makes me very proud, because that’s a lot of work.”

“When other parents would be tired and maybe they would just want to sit and watch TV, or just relax or something, mom would be up in her office working away,” says Mary. “We’d all be doing our homework and mom was either down reading a book or upstairs ...”

“... writing a book,” finishes Dagg.

For about 30 years Dagg’s accomplishments remained in relative obscurity, until she was tracked down by a group of giraffe biologists in 2010. Unbeknownst to Dagg, she was — and still is — considered a foundational expert in the field by the academic giraffe community.

In 2018, a documentary on her, “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes,” was released and her work finally received widespread recognition.

After the documentary was released she received awards and national attention. Universities bestowed honorary degrees. The University of Guelph made a formal apology and created a scholarship in her name. The Toronto Zoo named a newborn giraffe after her. Last year she was appointed to the Order of Canada.

Dagg still seems a little surprised and tickled by the limelight, but first and foremost she cares about the fate of giraffes.

Giraffes are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, the world’s most comprehensive resource for the status of species conservation. Habitat loss, illegal hunting and poaching, civil unrest and military activity are all listed as leading threats to giraffe populations.

Since 1985, giraffes’ numbers have declined from nearly 152,000 to about 97,500 in 2015. Giraffes’ numbers are much lower than other high-profile African species. For example, chimpanzees’ overall populations are estimated between 170,000 and 299,700, and African elephants at 415,000.

To help giraffes survive, Dagg, her daughter, Mary, and their team are launching the Anne Innis Dagg Foundation.

Once the documentary about Dagg’s life was released, the Daggs were flooded with requests from people asking how they can join her cause and help save giraffes.

“When people watch the movie,” says Mary Dagg, “they just come out going, ‘Wow, what an amazing woman,’ and the next one is, ‘How can I help? How can I make a difference?’

“We realized that what they really want to do is connect with Anne and stuff that Anne is informed with and engaged with. I read somewhere that when you make a donation, you’re not necessarily making a donation toward a cause, you’re donating to a person who has a cause,” Mary says.

Dagg’s living room is now a command post for giraffe activity. Cart tables are set up as makeshift desks and covered with stacks of papers, books, binders, articles, and newspaper clippings.

Mary Dagg has taken a year’s leave to help launch the foundation. Their goal is to peacefully help preserve the world’s giraffes.

For the Daggs, this means a focus on promoting education about giraffes and conservation in African countries including Tanzania, where the giraffe is the national animal.

In November, the foundation worked with the Wild Nature Institute to hire an environmental scientist based in Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania.

This position of Dr. Anne Innis Dagg Environmental Education Co-ordinator is tasked with visiting schools and communities to raise awareness about giraffe conservation. Tree planting is emphasized to teach the importance of habitat conservation and school trips are organized to take the children to see giraffes in the wild, something many of them have never seen, says Mary.

So far 12 schools in Tanzania are scheduled to be visited — four secondary and eight primary.

Other funds raised will go toward rangers who track poachers, as well as helping train and support “sniffer” dogs to detect giraffe parts being smuggled across the Tanzanian and Kenyan border, says Mary.

With overall numbers down by about 40 per cent in 30 years, giraffes can use all the help they can get. Conservation biologists and experts don’t think they will survive without more direct human intervention.

“It’s a very complicated problem. But you’ve got to start somewhere,” says Dagg.

“If we don’t smarten up, we could lose the giraffe.”

Learn more at anneinnisdaggfoundation.org

Leah Gerber’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows her to report on stories about the Grand River Watershed. Email lgerber@therecord.com

Leah Gerber, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Waterloo Region Record