Insights: Lessons from Giraffes, Gorillas and Sheep

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I watched an incredible movie a few months back called “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.” My interest was less about giraffes and more about the story of Dr. Anne Innis Dagg. Not to say I don’t like giraffes. They are beautiful animals, so graceful and curious, and they have blue tongues. 

I was impressed with how Anne stepped out of the world she knew, the safety of it, and explored what she was driven by. 

In 1956, Anne left for a journey to South Africa to be the first person, let alone the first woman, to study the life of giraffes. Anne had many challenges from first being a woman. For this reason alone she was turned down. Then Anne came across the bias of apartheid. Neither of these two issues stopped Anne from following what she knew she needed to do.

Something about her story struck me. Anne reports that her mother taught her to treat people as human beings, not by their color or their sex, and this is how she treats people. This led to people turning away from her, but she did not turn away from her dreams. This is evident throughout the documentary. 

Against the odds, Anne got up every day and did what no one had done before: she learned about the giraffe and published a book on her findings.  However, returning home she found people were not willing to treat her the way she treated others. They had a bias with allowing her what she earned and deserved with her research. 

Anne was not forgotten. In her 80s, she was able to go back and visit and teach what she knew about giraffes. Due to Anne’s experiences, she wrote a lot on human rights and woman’s rights. Her life did not start out that way, but due to her experiences she did not give up, but rather created another direction. 

“The Woman Who Loves Giraffes” is a must-watch movie that will warm your heart and inspire you to be who you are and live your dreams. 

This was also true in a book I just finished called “An Elephant in My Kitchen” by Francoise Malby-Anthony and Katja Willemsen. 

Francoise’s story is also one of living her dreams and, along the way, being heartbroken, yet taking her pain and making something of it. 

Francoise and her husband opened a safari park in South Africa, but her husband died and she is left to manage the park with the help of her staff.  She has to learn about animals, yet along the way decides to continue the dream along with opening an animal orphanage. 

Both these true stories left me reminding myself that we have to rise above our circumstances and keep focused on what is important not to just us, but also the world. 

These two people alone have made an incredible impact in the world. 

I just returned from a trip to Rwanda and South Africa, where I had the incredible experience of seeing the Mountain Gorillas (I’ll save details for another column).

I knew Rwanda has struggled since the genocide 25 years ago. I wanted to somehow make an impact when I went there. With some research I found out where we were staying, just outside of Volcano’s national park, that they were involved with a project called One Sheep Per Family. 

I decided to hassle all my friends to donate a sheep, which is $40. I was able to get 22 sheep. Thinking nothing of it, I ventured to that part of the world where the village we were helping put on a performance, and I was able to give each family their sheep.

While there, I met a couple from England who were there to also see the gorillas. I told them what I was doing and they kindly donated two more sheep. I invited them to join the event, which they gladly agreed. 

I wish I could share on paper how heart-rending this experience was. The English couple shared this was just as moving as seeing the gorillas and something they will never forget. 

These people have so little. That one sheep for that family enables them to be self-sufficient. As I was handing people their sheep they were shaking, crying, dancing, celebrating and so so grateful. I even have goose bumps as I am writing my story. I will continue to donate to this program yearly as I saw the impact it had. 

I so believe that when we step out of the norm, and do what is in our hearts, at our core, no matter what the challenges, what obstacles we come across, or what others say, we are being authentic and feel alive.

James ScGreevey once said, “We need to have a purpose in this life.  I’m pleading with you, I’m begging with you to do the right thing. And do it not for the sake of how it will impact your own lives, but only for the sake of doing the right thing.”

Contact Dr. Shelly Zavala at or [email protected].

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