Towering over me was a massive elongated head whose six-foot-long neck stretched down to meet us. This giant creature was so strange and intimidating when experienced up close that it might as well have been an alien being. And yet there was a knowing intelligence reflected in its huge eyes and long eyelashes that gazed down at me. I felt very small both in stature and in mind, humbled in the presence of an ancient African lineage that has the accumulated wisdom gained from eons of existence.
This intimate encounter with a giraffe awakened in me a contemplation. How is it that this singular species has evolved to become such a physically extreme animal? Upon searching this question, I discovered that wildlife researchers don’t actually know why. The prevailing belief has always been that giraffes look the way they do as a result of reaching up high in the trees for foliage. And yet recent research has called this commonly held assumption into question.
I was visiting the Virginia Zoo and experiencing the animals with the assistance of the zoo staff including Lead Keeper for the African Department, Jennifer McNamara. She is quite attuned to the well-being of this close-knit giraffe family. After all, Jennifer was giving birth to her own son around the same time that the giraffe calf Kylie was born during May of last year. We will hear more from Jennifer at the upcoming film event in our documentary series.
In contrast to humans, the pregnancy for Kylie’s mother, Imara, takes a bit longer. The giraffe gestation period lasts for 15 months before the birth of a newborn calf who may weigh 150 pounds and be six-foot tall. The proud father of Kylie is a prolific male giraffe named Billy the Kid who has sired many calves with multiple females over the 17 years he has lived at the Virginia Zoo. Although Billy is now an older adult, giraffes in captivity may live until their mid-twenties. You are invited to take advantage of our world-class zoo and visit this lovely giraffe family who lives in our own backyard.
Zoos around the world have now become the last sanctuaries for giraffes as well as thousands of other animals now threatened with possible extinction. During the last three decades, 40% of the wild population of African giraffes have perished. An estimated number of 110,000 giraffes still remain in the world. They consist of four distinct species, and five subspecies. Of these, all but two subspecies are listed as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Julian Fennessy, the director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, calls this the “silent extinction” due to the lack of world attention given to the vanishing number of giraffes as compared to the greater notoriety of elephants and the great apes.
A new documentary, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, will show at the Naro on Wednesday, Feb 26th in our ongoing “New Non-Fiction Film’ series. This Canadian produced film is an unexpected gift for naturalists, conservationists, and wildlife-lovers. The film retraces the groundbreaking life journey of Anne Innis Dagg. Her 1956 solo journey to South Africa at the age of 23 to study giraffes in the wild was the first scientific wildlife research of its kind. She arrived in Africa four years before the much better known Jane Goodall initially studied chimpanzees in the wild and seven years before Diane Fossey’s first work with mountain gorillas.
On her return to the states a year later, Anne Dagg wrote multiple scientific papers as well as the first book based on field research of the giraffe. Subsequently updated during the seventies, ‘The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behaviour and Ecology’ is still considered the most influential book on the species ever written, and referred to as the “bible on giraffes” by researchers, conservationists, and zoo keepers. And yet she never received the necessary funds to go back to Africa to continue her important research.
Filmmaker Alison Reid has fashioned The Woman Who Loves Giraffes as three interweaving stories: the young, pioneering Anne in Africa, her life upon returning to Canada and her struggles against a patriarchal academic system that denied her tenure and ended her professional research, and her return almost 60 years later to South Africa to reconnect with her initial studies in the field.
Each story is compelling in its own right. Anne’s past depicts her determination, passion, and risk. The present-day story focuses on her overcoming academic rejection and the joy of being re-discovered, and finally receiving the deserved recognition for her work. By weaving these stories together, director Alison Reid gives each a resonance and an emotional impact greater than they would have been on their own. At its core, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is an empowerment story that inspires young women to push forward, overcome obstacles, and to become trailblazers themselves.
Reid’s film is also a window into giraffe conservation, a critical issue now that giraffes are facing perilous declines in the wild. The species has survived on the African savanna for millions of years, having only a few large predators as natural enemies. But in just the last few decades, the long-term survival of giraffes is under threat due to the impact of humans. Giraffe numbers are plummeting as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, deforestation, civil wars, and illegal hunting and poaching.
But giraffes are only one species out of multitudes that are suffering decimation at the hands of humans. Research shows that hundreds of thousands of terrestrial and oceanic animals are in drastic decline with many heading toward extinction. Due to the accumulative effects of habitat destruction associated with 9 billion humans on the planet, as well as catastrophic climate change, the diversity of life that sustains ecological systems and human cultures around the world is collapsing. This devastation is entirely of our own making, the results of mankind’s technical and economic development, and the impact of our global industrial society.
The only animals whose numbers are actually increasing are the ones who have found a protective niche in the wild or are perceived by society as beneficial – domestic companions like dogs and cats, or those animals that we eat. But in the case of billions of animals raised as livestock within an inhumane factory farm system, their short suffering lives held captive in windowless and disease-ridden warehouses, is utterly unconscionable. Mankind’s karma as a result of profiting from such a cruel industrial system could very well be the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria or super-viruses that cross-over to humans.
You would think that in the face of the grim reality of species extinction, our government would be humbled into passing crucial legislation. And yet, sound conservation policies are themselves under threat by the Trump administration. The last three years has seen the systematic repression of hard empirical evidence by federal regulatory agencies concerning global warming, habitat loss, and the demise of wildlife species. The Endangered Species Act is now under assault by the Republican administration and by Congress.
In a response to mankind’s assault on the natural world, The Center for Biological Diversity has published a multi-pronged proposal for an ecological program that combines legal, political, scientific, and grassroots organizing. The Center’s ‘Saving Life On Earth’ campaign increases pressure on political candidates, holds corporations accountable, and raises public awareness of the global crisis.
This is a grassroots movement organized around the central issue of species extinction to complement the country’s climate crisis movement. The proposal would have the U.S. initially invest $100 billion into federal programs to protect multiple species and ecosystems through the creation of 500 new national parks, wildlife refuges, and marine sanctuaries. It would restore the full power of the Endangered Species Act and invest an initial $20 billion to save the 1,800 endangered species in the United States, along with dedicating $10 billion to state fish and game agencies to ensure abundant population levels.
In addition, the campaign would focus on eliminating environmental toxins and pesticides, and all other forms of air and water pollution. It advocates legislation to require 100% recycling mandates for all plastics, while moving away from dirty plastic production. Naro audiences will hear more about the ‘Saving Life On Earth’ campaign from The Center’s staff lawyer Catherine Kilduff at the showing of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.
Efforts to legislate sustainable policies will meet huge corporate and political resistance. The aggressively amoral Wall Street establishment that now controls both of the political parties and the politicians that do their bidding will obstruct progressive legislation with the justification that it’s just too expensive. They will fight any attempts to redirect the massive government funding of the military industrial system and subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry.
It’s very clear. The lines are drawn and for there to be any progress, Americans must vote for regime change in the November 2020 elections. The candidate who has maintained the most exemplary voting record over the decades, and who has endorsed progressive legislation like the Green New Deal is Bernie Sanders. His grassroots organization of impassioned followers, both young and old, black and white, working class and college educated – has the best chance of defeating Donald Trump. But to gain the Democratic nomination, it will be necessary for his supporters to clarify and inform voters about his policies and to explain how the lives of ordinary Americans will benefit under a Sanders administration.
There will be a concerted effort by the wealthy donor class and the Democratic Party leadership to thwart a Bernie nomination by painting him as a radical socialist. There is more fear within liberal institutions, corporate media, and liberal class corporatists of Bernie’s eco-socialist programs than there is of Trump’s economic assault on nature. They will do everything they can to keep a party that represents ordinary Americans from occupying the Whitehouse.
Over the last few decades, we have become a society governed by the monopolistic power consolidated under global finance capitalism. The revenue of giant corporations has now surpassed the GDPs of many sovereign nations. The relentless pursuit of profits by corporations to benefit the Wall Street investor class has decimated workers, while making wealth inequality grow ever greater.
The exploitation of the natural world has been financed by global capitalism, the IMF, and the World Bank – and it is driving the multiple crises facing the planet. The regressive visions of economic growth and laissez-faire capitalism have been perpetrated by our liberal institutions and repeated ad infinitum by mainstream media. This libertarian mindset has resigned us to become more willing to accept the apocalyptic demise of biodiversity as opposed to the end of global finance capitalism. But are we really prepared to watch as 3.7 billion years of biological life proceeds to vanish from the earth in the geological blink of an eye?
Neoliberal economics propagates the belief that the worth of the individual is based on productivity, and the amount of profit that a worker can produce. The country’s working class has seen their share of the overall corporate profit diminish, the lion’s share going to investors and management. Meanwhile, the average American worker no longer has the necessary income to invest in home ownership, healthcare, quality education, retirement, or childcare. The world’s oldest democracy and richest country should recognize the inherent worth of each individual and make these ideals within the reach of all its citizens.
Can we save ourselves? It will take all of our inner resources, empathy, and imagination to rise to the challenge. Everything must change. It will require the re-envisioning of society, the re-writing of legislation, and the re-creation of institutions. Americans can learn from the lessons achieved in the European social democracies. Our corporate dominated government will need to be transformed into a government by and for the people.
We are all in this together, humans and nonhuman animals alike – from the smallest and humblest among us. Our recommitment to protecting the biosphere and to the public commons will allow us to rediscover our humanity, our kindness, our truth, and our future.
“This isn’t just an environmental crisis. It’s a cultural and spiritual crisis,” Tierra Curry, a scientist at the Center For Biodiversity emphasizes. “By turning our backs on the wild, we’re turning our backs on what it means to be human. Animals and plants are integral to who we are and what kind of world we want to live in. When we lose a species, the world becomes a colder, lonelier place.”
We can initiate our resolve by voting in the upcoming Virginia Primary which has been moved up to Super Tuesday, March 3rd to align with about a dozen other states. Let’s take our vote seriously and encourage our friends and neighbors to join us in re-creating a just society for each and every one of us.