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Pursuing Giraffe

Interview with Anne Innis Dagg

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Why giraffe?

When I was two, my mother took me to Chicago for the summer to visit her parents. While there, we visited the zoo where I was entranced with the giraffe. Over the years friends and family gave me toy and stuffed giraffe which made me determined to go Africa and study giraffe when I grew up. This meant that I enrolled in the science stream in high school and took zoology at the University of Toronto. The only downside to this agenda was that after I returned to Canada, I had no plan for the rest of my life; I had accomplished what I had set out to to. When I tried to find work as a zoologist, I learned that sexism in academe created many obstacles for women in science.

To what extent is your memoir a coming-of-age story? a coming-into-science story?

My year in Africa was tremendously important in programming the rest of my life, as it turned out. I wanted desparately to become a professor because I loved teaching, but even after publishing many scientific papers and earning a doctorate, I wasn’t able to land a permanent job at a university. At the time many departments refused to hire women. In fact, at one local university, the dean of science told me he would never give a permanent job to a married woman—after all she had a husband to support her. This contempt for women enraged me. Universities were willing to train women for their doctorates but not willing to hire them. So for many years I became a feminist activist, working to force universities to hire on merit, not on sex. This destroyed my hope of finding a university job (who wants to emply a trouble-maker?) until at last I was hired by students of the Independent Studies program at the University of Waterloo as a resource person. I am currently a part-time academic advisor and teacher, even though I’m technically retired.

How does your experience compare to that of other zoologists, especially those who studied primates?

Initially it was very difficult to figure out how to study giraffe. There was no tradition of a zoologist settling down in the field to watch the habits of one animal for months or years at a time. I wrote to everyone I could think of in Africa—directors of national parks and reserves, government wildlife personnel, professors at African universities but none offered any help. Finally, I was put in touch with a farmer who had giraffe on his undeveloped lands. He accepted me because he thought I was a man; I had used only my initials in writing to him. After I reached South Africa and had written him that I was a woman, he said that his offer no longer stood. It was only after more begging correspondence that he finally reluctantly agreed that I could come to his farm. Once at the farm, I found Mr. Mathew to be incredibly helpful, but he could put me up only for a limited time period.

Women such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey who studied primates after me, had a far easier time initially. Their sponsor, Louis Leakey, arranged for where they were to study, their travel there, the money to support them and their work, and contact with media to publicize their findings. With such help there was no time limit for their research. However, their research conditions were more difficult than mine and they were often almost alone as they worked. Today graduate students wanting to study “exotic” species need only apply to a university with interest in their field to have all their research organized, financed, and overseen.

To what extent did you education prepare you for what you’d encounter in Africa?

I learned nothing in school or at university about giraffe. I did learn some tasks that were helpful, such as how to make surveys of growing vegetation. When I arrived at the giraffe farm I had no real help in figuring out what I should do—one professor said I should do what Fraser Darling had done in his study of the red deer in Scotland, but that was a very different species in a cold climate. At that time his work was about the only comprehensive study of the activities and behaviour of a large mammal. So I used my head, writing down everything I observed about giraffe during the ten hour days I spent in the field. This was the first study of the giraffe so everything was important to report. My eventual monograph was immediately accepted for publication in London.

What did you learn about giraffe: about yourself? about Africa?

I learned a huge amount about giraffe: what they did each day at five-minute intervals, what they ate, where they drank, how they interacted with each other, how their activities changed with the seasons. I saw a great deal of homosexual behaviour that had rarely or never been reported before for wild animals (but which is now known to be common).

About myself, I learned that as a young woman with a strange ambition, I was liked by most people and I liked them, despite the hideous amount of racism I saw among the whites. I realized that I had the discipline to to whatever I wanted to do and thought that anything was possible, which turned out not to be true because of the sexism then prevalent in the Canada I returned to.

About Africa, I was most shocked by the open racism which I hadn’t been exposed to growing up. Despite this, I made friends with a few Africans and Arabs which broadened my outlook. I was also amazed by the often primitive conditions of the roads on which I travelled. I had imagined that the Great North Road would be something other than the dirt track along which I sometimes helped to push my bus, mired as it was in mud.

What led you to re-examine this period of your life?

During my stay in Africa, I not only collected information on giraffe but I also wrote home extensively and in a journal about what I was experiencing each day. Since that time I have always planned to write up my adventures and finally found time to begin several years ago. It is important to document what it was like living in Africa at a time when the “winds of change” were beginning to blow across the continent. That world has gone forever. A few years after my visit, African countries I had stayed in began to gain their freedom from British colonial rule and South Africa was increasingly convulsed by racial violence. Nowadays, there would be no way a lone woman could travel safely for many thousands of miles through so many countries the way I did.