“The Woman Who Loves Giraffes” lives up to its title, and something more.
A documentary by Alison Reid, “Giraffes” tells the story of Anne Innis Dagg, now 85, who fell in love with those tallest of tall animals when she was 3 years old and never looked back.
While the story of Dagg’s achievements as the first person to study an African animal in the wild is impressive, her narrative, involving gender prejudice, neglect and unexpected rebirth, is more complicated and involving than that.
“Giraffes” benefits not only from Dagg’s charismatic presence but also from excerpts of letters she wrote during her first trip to Africa (read by Tatiana Maslany) and 16-millimeter color film she shot back in the day.
And, no surprise, the film has numerous shots of those giraffes themselves, gorgeous beasts truly looking like no other animal on the planet, at their ease as well as hypnotically running across the African plains.
Troubled, as both a child and a university student, by the lack of any authoritative book on the giraffe (something she would remedy years later by cowriting “The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior and Ecology”), Dagg decided to see things for herself.
In 1956 at age 23, with an undergraduate degree in biology, Anne Innis (as she was at the time) determined, four years before Jane Goodall and seven years before Dian Fossey, to study her favorites close up. To even think of doing that as a woman on her own in that era, a fellow scientist says, “takes an explorer’s heart.”
It also takes a healthy disregard for the era’s gender norms. After writing to several potential host sites and getting responses that mentioned the need for a chaperone, she got the idea of signing her letters “A. Innis.” That got a yes from Alexander Matthew, who ran a 20,000-acre citrus ranch in South Africa called Fleur de Lys, a place some 200 giraffes called home.
Nothing if not intrepid, Innis told her fiancé (later husband) Ian Dagg that marriage would have to wait, purchased a used Ford Prefect and drove 12 hours a day alone across South Africa to get to the ranch near Kruger National Park.
Visible in the movies she shot and talked about in the letters she wrote to Dagg, Innis’ time at the ranch could not have been more exciting.
Observing giraffes for nine hours a day almost every day, she took extensive notes, made detailed charts and graphs, observed male fighting behavior no one had ever written about and, when a giraffe was killed by a park warden, dried out the animal’s intestines and measured them at 256 feet.
Returning to her native Canada after a year in Africa, Innis married and envisioned a life of university teaching and frequent return research trips to Africa. The prejudicial mores of the time, however, would not permit it.
Though she got a Ph.D. in animal behavior and had published papers in top scientific journals, as a married woman Dagg found the barriers to getting tenure at a university were greater than she anticipated. She was rejected more than once, a career-destroying blow even the memory of which, as we see, brings this usually convivial woman to tears.
Dagg was so angry about the situation that she spent years fighting, to little avail, what she saw as entrenched unfair treatment of women at Canadian universities.
During this period, though everyone in the field knew her book, Dagg personally disappeared from the giraffe world. Then, in 2010, Amy Phelps, a curator at the San Francisco Zoo, sought her out and invited her to attend a conference of the International Association for Giraffe Care Professionals, where she would be given a lifetime award.
The scene there, with attendees bringing tattered copies of Dagg’s book for her to sign, comparing talking to her with “meeting a Beatle,” and Dagg, astonished at still being remembered, are among the film’s most moving.
And there is more. Dagg gets an opportunity to go back to Africa for two visits, the first time she’d returned in more than half a century. The memories those visits evoke, and Dagg’s continued passion for doing everything possible to keep the now-endangered giraffe healthy and thriving, are more heartening still, a remarkable conclusion to a surprising tale.
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Starts Feb. 21, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center, Encino; Laemmle Claremont