Myrna Gabbidon – “The Giraffe Lady”

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Photo courtesy of Myrna Gabbidon. Painting by John Kilaka.

How does a retired elementary school teacher in Toronto, born and raised in Jamaica, emerge on the front line of an effort to save Tanzanian giraffes from extinction? And what role does the now-extinct Canadian penny play in her strategy?

When Myrna Gabbidon retired from her tenure in the classrooms of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), she had no firm plan for the immediate future, except to remain as close as possible to the occupation she had enjoyed for many years. What she could not have anticipated was the request she received from a former TDSB educator-turned-principal of a private school in Tanzania to join the staff there in a supply capacity. Her acceptance of the offer was almost instantaneous as it seemed an opportunity to embark on a potentially interesting experience. She arrived at the Savannah Plains school in Shinyanga in early October 2010.

At the school was a small zoo that included a giraffe — the country’s national animal and a creature that had fascinated her as a child while reading stories about various people, places, and things around the world. Giraffes had become her favourite animals and remained so. In talking with staff and parents, they encouraged her to go on a safari for an extraordinary experience in the giraffes’ world. She did… and was not disappointed. 

However, she learned of the disheartening anticipation that those remarkable creatures were in imminent danger of extinction — not necessarily from natural causes but more so due to poaching for their coats, tails, and meat. She was shocked by the information and spent much of her free time contemplating what she could do to avert the catastrophe. 

Soon after her arrival in Shinyanga, she met John Kilaka, an artist and storyteller whose work focuses on depicting African animals in a traditional Tanzanian animal fable with gentle humour, vibrant colour, and memorable characters. He had written a book titled True Friends: A Tale from Tanzania (Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press). He knew the giraffes were endangered and, like Gabbidon, was eager to contribute in some way.

This prompted her to contemplate what she might do about protecting the species. Once again, fate assumed a role in the developing drama when the Canadian government announced the withdrawal of its ancient penny from circulation. That information sparked Gabbidon’s idea of connecting the newly extinct penny to the potential extinction of giraffes. 

She therefore requested that Kilaka produce a painting of a giraffe covered in Canadian pennies. An additional idea was to offer copies of the painting for sale and to auction off the original, with proceeds going toward funding a campaign to save the giraffes. The story of the Canadian penny was to be a reminder that if enough work isn’t going into saving the giraffes, they also might be “out of circulation” in a few years. 

On her return to Canada after a second visit to Savannah Plains School in 2011, Gabbidon threw her energy into expanding her efforts. In 2020, she contacted Dr. Anne Innis Dagg, a Canadian zoologist and world expert on giraffes. Dr. Dagg had done extensive research and had already written more than 25 books and numerous articles on the subject. Having corresponded with her regarding the plight of giraffes, Gabbidon’s commitment was reinforced. 

Through her organization Books Give Us Wings, she says, “I have taken every opportunity to bring my message to elementary-age students, making it my mission to expose the plight of the giraffe, not only in captivity but also in the wild.” In that regard, she also created book markers with pictures of giraffes taken on safari in the Serengeti, which she distributes whenever she visits schools. 

One of the interesting responses to date is that a brother–sister duo — Abigail and Josh Dunbar, students at North York’s Claude Watson School for the Arts — with the support of a dance teacher have created a short, beautiful ballet piece titled The Giraffes

Orville Green | Contributing Writer

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