top of page
  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Anne Innis Dagg, Giraffe, and the Winding Road of the Citizen Scientist.

Before Jane and Dian, Biruté and Jeanne, there was Anne.  

In 1957 Anne Innis (b. 1933) became the first woman to attempt a solo animal research expedition in Africa when she undertook the observation of giraffes in South Africa. Three years later, Jane Goodall entered the wilds of Tanzania to observe the chimpanzees there.  Goodall emerged to fame and the sort of global adoration usually reserved for socially conscious pop stars, while Innis faced decades of frustration picking valiantly at the periphery of an academic establishment that had no time for her or her proposed revolutions.  She cowered before no idols, and entertained no fear of repeatedly entering the arena against the most powerful assumptions of the university system, refusing to let failure in the previous crusade dampen her ardor for the next until finally, imperceptibly at first, but eventually at pace, the system moved.

Innis's career contradicts everything one expects of a 20th century academic - the common trajectory of initial achievement giving way to overwhelming specialization and eventually tapering off in soul-flattening rounds of administrative responsibility was neither thrust upon her by circumstance nor sought by her polymath temperament, and so she has had the opportunity to spend her decades researching problems that interested her as they arose, regardless of how their field of origin connected with her supposed field of expertise.  Ranging through her list of publications one finds pieces on animal gaits, giraffe homosexuality, gender problems in academia, the ethics of animal experimentation, a model for the essential non-violence of early man, a codex of important women non-fiction authors, and several critiques of sociobiology, to name just a fraction of her prodigious output.

How did such a person arise in the midst of a university system so aggressively allergic to the intellectual breadth it habitually styles as dilettantism?  Part of the answer surely comes from her parents, brilliant individuals both who modeled the virtue of hard intellectual work to their children.  Her father was a University of Toronto economics professor and World War I veteran who worked from 9 to 4 then came home and researched and wrote until it was time for bed, while her mother both ran the house and had a career as an author of fiction and textbooks.  They taught by example the habits and joys of scholarship, to the extent that Innis found (and continues to find) unproductive leisure a most miserable prospect.

The other source of Innis's broad productivity is of less happy provenance.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in spite of having been the first person to undertake a thorough study of wild giraffe behavior, and in spite of having been the first person to attempt a scientific description of the mechanical differences in animal gait patterns, she found herself consistently passed over for a full time university position.  As a part-time lecturer, her classes were well-attended and enjoyed by the student body.  Her work ethic ensured a steady stream of publications which any department ought to have been honored to count among its productions.  And yet, when tenure positions opened up, or promotions loomed, they inevitably went to males of lesser experience with far fewer publications (and, more importantly, citations) under their belts.  

Shoved to the periphery of the Canadian university system, granted odd part-time work here and there but never a full and protected research position, she was not hedged in by the strictures of academic advancement.  She was thus in a unique position to pursue questions that interested her, and to see weaknesses in academic hiring and research practices that were unapparent to those on the inside.  She compiled statistics about the treatment of women students and professors and put her findings into articles, and her energy into committees that sought to redress the worst imbalances in Canadian classroom and hiring practices.  

Later, faced with a surge in intellectual popularity for male-centric sociobiological explanations of infanticide and rape, she again put her shoulder to the research wheel, digging through archives to find the original source material for the studies cited by the sociobiologists, and exposing important omissions that cast their conclusions in a significantly different light.  

As if amassing evidence of gender abuses on both the administrative and theoretical levels were not enough to fill her time, Innis concurrently began a campaign to reconsider the effectiveness and necessity of animal testing in university and private research.  As a younger researcher, she had been a first hand witness to the casual cruelty inflicted on animals in the name of science of dubious value.  After an experience placing a terrified chinchilla in a tank of water to measure its swimming motions, she resolved never to place another animal in distress merely to satisfy her own curiosity, and designed her observations to take place in natural circumstances that did not negatively impact the animals.  

Privately abstaining from the use of laboratory animals early in her career, it was not until some decades later that she began compiling statistics on the effectiveness of animal research generally, creating a fascinating new metric to measure the utility of such studies.  This metric, the AN/CN rating, divided the number of animals killed in a study by the number of citations of that study in the scientific literature to determine how egregiously a study threw away animal life in the name of science that failed to answer questions which enthralled the larger scientific community.  

She found that some nations were much more responsible than others in the design of their experiments, and that universities scored far less well than private companies in responsibly using animals for experimentation only in studies of large impact.  Ahead of her time when she began investigating the issue of ethical experiment design with regard to animal use, she has lived long enough to see her work the focus and inspiration of a new generation of ethically motivated researchers who stand a chance, just perhaps, of compelling a broad-based rethink of university policy.

Throughout her life, publishing the results of her work has been a tricky affair for Innis.  Books and articles that directly confronted academic biases had difficulty finding publishers, while her many forays into the cataloguing of Canada's local wildlife were often rejected as of too limited interest for publication.  So, she established Otter Press to publish her own works and thereby shepherd them into the hands of students at a reasonable price in order that they in turn might take her observations of university shortcomings to heart and use them to push for a more conscientious and inclusive future.  

But at the end of the day, if you know about Anne Innis Dagg, it is most likely not for her bold feminism or uncompromising calls for the ethical treatment of animals, but for her work in giraffe research.  It began with her youthful fascination with the animal, culminating in her 1957 solo trip to South Africa to observe the animals in the wild first hand (a trip that was only made possible by the fact that she signed her letters of inquiry "A. Innis" and thereby hid the fact of her gender from her prospective hosts until it was too late to reverse her invitation) and the publication of the classic text The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior and Ecology with J. Bristol Foster in 1976.  That book has served as the Bible of all things giraffe for two generations of zookeepers and field researchers, and its subsequent updates and companion volume Giraffe: Behavior, and Conservation (2014) have cemented her role as the world's giraffe ambassador.  

Now, at the age of 91, Anne Innis Dagg continues to observe the animals that have formed the regular weft of her career, while keeping a sharp eye out on a world capable of much casual cruelty, but also of self-awareness and gradual improvement so long as there are people like her willing to stake their reputation for what is right and fair, human and humane.  


Innis has written of her experiences during her year long wild giraffe study (Pursuing Giraffe: A 1950s Adventure (2006)) and about her career in general, with a focus on her broad and revolutionary research projects in Smitten by Giraffe: My Life as a Citizen Scientist (2016).  If you're in it for giraffes, go for the former, if you came for some deep looks at academic sexism and institutionalized animal cruelty, then head for the latter!


bottom of page