Shirley McGreal: Saving primates her life’s work

  • Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Judy Watts/Journal Scene Shirley McGreal

International Primate Protection League Founder Shirley McGreal has spent her life traveling the world, fighting off poachers and traders of primates. She’s traded that time for a more peaceful life in Summerville, while still saving the animals she loves. Her reserve on Primate Lane allows her to rescue gibbons, give them the medical attention they need and provide them with a loving home to retire to.

“(Gibbons) are very nice to take care of. They’re very nice and pleasant and not as rough as chimps,” she said. “They even sing duets together and their songs are very nice.”

Founded in 1973, the IPPL is celebrating its 40th anniversary. McGreal started it with friends from Thailand with little to nothing. Now they have over 15,000 newsletter members and make financial grants to primate groups worldwide.

“We give grants of $5,000-$10,000 to a variety of little projects around the world led by gutsy people.”

Global and gutsy are words that also describe McGreal. Born in England, she found her way to Southeast Asia after college. She traveled throughout the area working to stop the smuggling, experiments and exportation of primates.

While in Singapore she went undercover as an interested client of smuggled primates. Her findings became known in the Bangkok Post and later the Associated Press.

In Thailand she worked with university students to gain information on the living conditions of the primates being exported. She told the prime minister who immediately banned the export of primates and many other mammals.

McGreal worked with Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai to ban the export of monkeys from the country. This was after The Times of India ran an editorial based off the press releases from McGreal calling for the ban on primate exports. After Indira Gandhi replaced Desai in office, she agreed to uphold the ban.

After the ban in India, Bangladesh followed suit. Labs were performing radiation experiments on monkeys by putting them on treadmills, irradiating them and putting them back on the treadmills. The animals were collapsing on the machines and vomiting. The company had a contract with an American business to export 70,000 monkeys to the U.S. The Bangladesh government threw the U.S. company out of the country.

McGreal is still saving primates to this day, along with Asian short-clawed otters, but in a domestic setting in Summerville. The IPPL houses 37 gibbons that were rescued from zoos and sanctuaries that did not want them anymore and in some cases were going to euthanize them. Gibbons’ caring nature appeals to McGreal.

“They’re monogamous, pair-bonded animals who don’t fight because they’re about the same size. Males even help with the babies,” she said. “They live high in the treetops in the wild and are always swinging. They’re wonderful to watch.”

She knows every ape on the property’s name and one of her favorites is Glenda, a smaller than average gibbon with a fixation for affection.

“She’s the only one that I stick my arm inside to pet,” she said after Glenda came running when she heard McGreal’s voice. “She’s very lovely and loves to have her back scratched.”

In 2008 she traveled to Buckingham Palace in her native country to receive her Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth. She remains in continued contact with Prince Philip and he congratulated the IPPL for their latest anniversary in a letter.

“It would be difficult to over-estimate the cumulative value of the work undertaken by IPPL over the last 40 years, and the sheer dedication of Dr McGreal,” the letter read. “IPPL is a shining example of what can be achieved by persistent effort, accurate intelligence, and fearless intervention.”

Dr. Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and renowned chimpanzee expert, also reached out to McGreal and the IPPL on the anniversary.

“For 40 years you have struggled to improve the lives of countless primates and have truly made a difference in their lives.”

Due to the effort and care put forth by McGreal, the otters have a place to swim, the overseas advocates have a reason to hope, and the trees have songs thanks to a group of happy gibbons.

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