You may have already seen The Woman Who Loves Giraffes (playing in NYC until 1/23 and opening in LA on 2/21), in which case you’re probably as excited as me that I got to talk to director Alison Reid and scientist Anne Innis-Dagg in a double interview! Read on to hear a documentarian and her subject in conversation on their collaboration! The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You guys have spent the past five years together; what’s that been like?
Anne: Well, we’re still speaking to each other! [laughs] Every now and then we’ve had things go wrong that we thought were going to go right, but we fought through and came out on top.
Ali: In fact, we’re heading out on another journey to Kenya on Thursday. It’s been a real privilege to be along with Anne, on the ride with her. As Anne said there were lots of things that got in the way of the journey, but they all made us stronger and some even helped with the storytelling.
Alison, how did the ball get rolling with this project on your end?
Ali: I sort of jumped in with both feet, not really knowing what would happen! When I found out Anne was going back to the first conference in Kenya [depicted in the film], at the last minute I asked Anne if I could go with her and record it, because I was like wow, she hasn’t been back to see wild giraffes in Africa for well over half a century, this is historic! So scrambled and got a little crew together and we went with her, and then I kept going with her everywhere she went.
Anne: It was great.
Ali: Yeah, it was fabulous. Two years later, the next giraffe conference happened to be taking place near Kruger, South Africa, which was a stone’s throw from Fleur de Lys, where Anne did her pioneering studies. We actually stayed at Fleur de Lys, and to see Anne in the exact same places where I’d seen the old 16mm footage of Anne as a 23 year old, was incredible. Then there was the Brookfield Zoo Conference in Chicago, which happened to be was the place where Anne fell in love with giraffes at the age of four years – and where the whole thing started. So it was a real full circle journey.
These are some really convenient giraffe conferences.
Ali: Yes! Who knew?
And what did you guys do in the interim?
Ali: We weren’t shooting constantly for five years, just whenever Anne was going somewhere doing something giraffe oriented–
Anne: Which was often but not always. And [the rest of the time] we were in our different cities; I would write books, and she’s been working on the movie.
Anne, what it’s like to have a doc made of your life?
Anne: Well, it makes one proud. It’s sort of amazing to see yourself up there; at the beginning you’re shocked, and look around to see if anyone else is looking, and then you get used to it I guess. It makes me remember all that happened [in my life] and it brings back happy memories, and then we’ll talk about it all again during the Q and As, so it’s great. I like it!
Ali: It’s funny how Anne got used to it–I try to be as unobtrusive as possible with the camera, of course. But I think by the end of it [she] got used to having me as an appendage.
Anne: Oh it didn’t bother me at all. I just went around doing whatever I was doing, and Ali thought all that was great.
What plans do you have for your upcoming trip to Kenya?
Anne: I think Ali’s going to try to do a scripted movie; I’m not sure exactly what she’s got planned, but I’m sure it’ll be lovely.
Ali: Well, we’d been wanting to go back to see giraffes in the wild for quite a while, and we’ve been so busy, we haven’t had an opportunity until now. Part of the incentive was not only to see giraffes, but to participate in the conservation efforts of John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura of Reticulated Giraffe Project. They’re taking busloads of local kids into Samburu National Reserve to give them an opportunity to experience the wildlife. It’s amazing to think that many of them have never even seen a giraffe. This is a chance for them to connect with all the wildlife, learn about it and hopefully be inspired to become involved in conservation efforts.
We also wanted to carve out time to get off the grid. At home, I’m glued to my computer with a constant stream of things to deal with, so I need time away from that to start to write.
Anne: Don’t know how you do it, really. [laughs]
Ali: [laughs] Yeah.
What kind of project is this scripted version?
Ali: My initial intention with her story was to make a scripted film about her, with actors, like Gorillas in the Mist or Out of Africa. When I decided to follow Anne back to Africa, I went off on the tangent of making the documentary, but I still want to make the scripted version. Believe it or not there are so many layers and compelling parts of Anne’s story that we didn’t address in the documentary, and also parts that I want to go into with more depth. I originally thought it would be a feature film, but there’s so much material and great stories to tell that I think it’s going to be a series.
What kind of stories?
Ali: There are so many! We mentioned in the film that Anne went on a boat to South Africa, but there were things that happened on that boat. There’s a lot more about her journey getting there, characters she met–I call them characters, but people she met–for instance, she connected with a guy named Josiah Chinamano, a black man, who ended up being an important political figure. Anne went up to talk to him, which wasn’t done then. The white people on the boat were mad at her for talking to this guy, but she didn’t let that stop her. They exchanged books that they were reading and stayed in contact for the rest of their lives. There was a woman named Griff Ewer, who was instrumental in helping Anne. She was a professor at–what university?
Anne: Rhodes University.
Ali: Rhodes, yeah, she was a professor there, and Anne was staying with her and her husband. Griff was this cigar smoking, pants-wearing woman who was very accomplished, and taught Anne a lot about how to write a scientific paper. In the film Mary talks about Anne putting dead animals in the freezer in order to study them later. In her letters, [Anne] talks about riding in the car with Griff, and all of a sudden she slams on the brakes and gets out of the car, and there’s a dead animal on the road, and she scoops it up and puts it in the trunk, and poor young Anne is like “what are you doing?” and she’s like “we’re gonna take it back and study it.” So I think she got the idea of studying animals that were already dead from Griff.
That’s awesome. Anne, it seems like you broke a lot of ground with scientific techniques we think of as basic these days.
Anne: It’s amazing that no one had ever done that sort of thing.
It’s definitely amazing; I think of dissection as high school stuff. What was it like figuring it out on your own?
Anne: I guess we just worked on what we had, you know. [laughs] I remember I had a long sample of intestines [from a giraffe that had been shot by a warden], and I measured it to figure out how long it was.
Ali: It’s fascinating; Anne put them up on this line and measured them with a yardstick. Though she never did anything with animals that would harm them, which was unique at the time.
Anne: Yes, Some people are really cruel, and they don’t care about the animals; they just want to get the information–I would never do that.
What kind of experiments did you do on the giraffes in the wild?
Anne: Well I didn’t do any experiments really, I just wrote down exactly what they did, what they ate, then again five minutes later, what they were doing and eating. Not getting involved because if you’re involved, that’s no good–it has to be the animal’s behavior itself.
Any information you were looking for in particular?
Anne: Oh yeah, everything. Actually, some males were mounting males, and I had never seen that before. So I would be noting down which ones were around which others. I wrote a long paper about that. And people complained that it couldn’t be so, but of course it actually is.
What are you up to right now?
Anne: Really now I’m just writing books and trying to get things published. Mostly collecting and compiling, as you saw in the film, the data other scientists have been gathering.
Ali: Anne and Bristol Foster wrote the bible on giraffes back in 1976, and as you saw that was still the book giraffe scientists relied on after all these years. After Anne was re-immersed into the giraffe community she was able to talk to the current giraffe scientists and compile their data too, and she’s written what I call the updated bible.
Anne: It’s called Giraffe Biology, Behavior, and Conservation. And actually, because women were having such a hard time at universities I’ve spent a lot of time working with women, to show that we shouldn’t be treated the way we were being treated. I’ve written books on that as well.
Can you tell us a bit about the teaching you did, as a resource person for independent study students?
Anne: I became best friends really, with the students. And with some of them I’d go out in the field; we’d arrange to work on different species. It was just wonderful I was able to do that, even though I wasn’t a full professor. One of our people was one of the best bird watchers in Canada, and I followed her around; she was amazing at identifying them. But mostly I worked with mice; we’d catch them in live traps, and then in the morning we’d measure them and let them free, and we could work on various questions of where these animals were in the environment and what that meant. I did a lot of work on urbanization as well, because I was interested in how animals were [adapting to] living in cities.
So how have things changed, now that a movie has been made about you and you’re calling so much more attention to the issue of giraffe conservation?
Anne: We’re working so hard, getting so many people involved–I have a list of probably 100 people who have emailed me, and told me their stories, and I’ve emailed them back. During the last year I’ve fallen into doing that all the time. It’s good because it’s spreading the word about the giraffes but it can also be exhausting, meeting so many people so fast.
Ali: Though we feel really lucky, because no matter where we go Anne always gets a great reception. People want to talk to her, tell her about their experiences with the giraffes–not many people her age have that kind of life. And if a week goes by where nothing’s going on she’ll kind of be like “what are we up to? I need something on my schedule!”
Anne: Though that doesn’t happen often! [laughs]
Ali: No, it doesn’t. [laughs] And since the documentary came out, Anne has received all sorts of accolades. The University of Guelph issued her an official apology, and they established a scholarship in her name–the Doctor Anne Innis Dagg Scholarship for Summer Research, in which money will be granted every year to a female biology student to help with her field work. The University of Waterloo gave her an honorary doctorate, she’s received a fellowship to the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, and she has been appointed to the Order of Canada. So what’s changed has been a lot more recognition for Anne and her work.
Ali, what was it like getting to know Anne?
Ali: It’s just wonderful. I looked up to Anne, respected what she did, and was intrigued by this adventurous, pioneering woman. And to get to know her and discover that the person is just as intriguing or more intriguing than her story has been fantastic. She’s so humble, she’s so well accomplished, she’s got a great sense of humor, she’s so easy to be with.
Anne: We like each other! [laughs]
Ali: [laughs] Anne used to be an avid canoeist, so every time we go somewhere near a lake we hop in a canoe, and paddle around.
Someone at the Q and A actually thought you were a biologist, Ali. What’s it been like dabbling in biology?
Ali: It’s been fantastic–I have an affinity for it, even though I took a different path. Biology and the sciences were definitely what drew me when I was in school. And of course I’ve been at so many of these conferences that I now know lots of members of giraffe community – and it’s fascinating to hear them talk.
Thank you so much for doing this; I’m honored. Your work for both women and giraffes has been so important. Have a great rest of your press tour, and a great trip to Kenya!
[End of interview]
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is playing in New York at the Quad Cinema through January 23rd, and will open in LA on February 21st. To see other cities and playdates go to: https://zeitgeistfilms.com/film/thewomanwholovesgiraffes#playdates
You can also find ways to help the effort to conserve giraffe populations and learn more about Anne and her work at the film’s website: https://thewomanwholovesgiraffes.com/. The Reticulated Giraffe Project, Save The Giraffes, and the Wild Nature Institute are a few organizations you can get involved with to help Anne and other scientists like her carry on their mission!
Finally, the pictures included in this article of Anne and Alison on canoeing outings have been kindly provided by Alison Reid!
Photo Credit: Alison Reid