Anne Innis Dagg battles institutional chauvinism in The Woman Who Loves Giraffes

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      A documentary by Alison Reid. Rated PG

      There are two endangered species mentioned in the title of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, and Anne Innis Dagg speaks up for both of them.

      This well-assembled doc is a thoroughgoing introduction to someone who should be as familiar for her knowledge of and advocacy for giraffes as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey are for primate studies. Her curse, if that’s what it was, was to begin work before the better-known but equally self-taught zoologists, and to come from the wrong country.

      Intriguingly, these pioneers were born within two years of each other, and Dagg—who turns a supremely active 86 this month—started out as the best connected of them. Her father, Harold Innis, was a hugely influential professor of economics and communications, and mother Mary Quayle Innis was a noted historian. Although she was encouraged in early research by Louis Leakey, the anthropologist who fostered Fossey and Goodall ultimately wouldn’t stick his neck out for giraffes. Indeed, their otherworldly nature has never sparked the popular enthusiasm that primates, pachyderms, and large cats seem to generate.

      In 1956, with no academic sponsorship, she found (or rather created) a willing host in South Africa, in a wildlife rancher who also let her use his 16mm camera—thereby inadvertently supplying this breezy effort with beautiful colour footage detailing the lives of her subjects, and her own, as a brave and contagiously outgoing 23-year-old on a mission.

      Eventually married to unusually supportive Ian Dagg—himself a physics professor at the University of Waterloo—our budding giraffologist spent the next 10 years completing a high-level education, with all attendant degrees and the publishing of books and papers that remain paramount in her field. When she tried to turn that into gainful academic employment, however, it yielded worse than nothing. As recently as 1979, she was litigating against misogyny in Canada’s scholarly world, all without success. (One of the “old-stock” professors who blackballed her attempts at tenure appears briefly, and smugly.)

      This unfortunate passage marks only the middle section of an otherwise uplifting effort from first-time feature-maker Alison Reid, who spent three decades as a stuntwoman and stunt coordinator before easing into the director’s chair—and sitting quite tall there, from the look of it.