- Pursuing Giraffe: A 1950s Adventure
This beautifully written book explores a young Canadian biologist's field studies on giraffes, and her impressions of Africa and its people in [End Page 400] the mid-1950s. But her story is much more than just research into giraffe behaviour and life in Africa. Anne Innis Dagg is most concerned about what she learned, while in Africa, about herself. Pursuing Giraffe relates the tale, through stories of giraffes and the evolving situation within Africa, of a brave person's effort to live life honestly. Dagg presents in her book a heart-rending self-examination, because all her words reflect an underlying tenor of constant self-reassessment that occurred over the passage of years.
Descriptions of people, land, and animals are all so rich that it is hard to do justice to how the author handled these topics. She looked with probing eyes at race relations as they were in Africa in the 1950s – how Black people, Dutch and English whites, Indians and Asians lived and worked, with or separately from each other. Her acute interest in everyone she met over her stay in Africa is as palpable as her interest in zoology. The landscape, too, received much of the author's attention. Her appreciation of its changeable beauty in different African countries was ever present. In fact, the author dwelt as much or more on the people and their race relations, and on the scenery of Africa, as she did on the continent's wildlife. The jewel of the book, in terms of scenery and human activity, lies in her treatment of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and her descriptions in particular of life in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, and on Mount Kilimanjaro.
We learn as well, though, much about her wildlife research and her lifelong passion for the giraffe. For days she watched them living in the wild, making notes on their activities. She dissected the carcass of one, and observed giraffe homosexual behaviour. She tried to understand what giraffes ate over the seasons. She found that they make noises, a fact not recognized at the time. Dagg also described a lion hunt. The reader comes to understand through her stories not just that she was a woman alone working in Africa, but also how much on the forefront of science she was. In the 1950s nothing much was known about animal behaviour in the wild, homosexual behaviour in particular.
Dagg presented herself as a middle-class Canadian woman growing up in the 1940s in Toronto. But she was a most unusual person within that class. She came from an intellectually brilliant family (she is the daughter of Harold Innis and Mary Quayle Innis, both important people within the culture and academia of the University of Toronto from the 1930s until the 1950s). While she had enormous courage in doing what she did in Africa – travelling alone, pursuing zoological research at a time when work in the field was not only rare but also totally male-driven – it is perhaps important, in order to contextualize her life and work to some degree, to remember that she came from a family background with university connections and research interests. [End Page 401]
The author often positioned her research and mid-twentieth-century society in Africa from the standpoint of a twenty-first-century perspective. Her concern for understanding faults in her own thinking led her into this emphasis on presentism, which in effect defuses the power of her 1950s reminiscences. One cannot forget when reading Pursuing Giraffe that its bones rest on a journal that had been kept over 1956 and 1957, and the immediacy of that journal is one of the book's most powerful attributes. The overlay of more recent viewpoints tends to undermine the innate strength and historic value of that earlier manuscript. The relationship of the present situation to that of the 1950s (as recorded by the journal at the time) works best in her discussion of affairs in Tanganyika and Zimbabwe and worst with respect to South Africa. This is a problem...