Shirley McGreal, Champion of Primates Under Threat, Dies at 87

She exposed smuggling rings and research laboratories and built a sanctuary for gibbons in South Carolina.,

She exposed smuggling rings and research laboratories and built a sanctuary for gibbons in South Carolina.

Shirley McGreal’s mission to save primates from smugglers, testing laboratories and zoos began in 1971 in Thailand when she saw crates of infant, white stump-tailed macaque monkeys piled up in the cargo area at a Bangkok airport. They were bound for New York.

“The babies looked so helpless and, rightly or wrongly, I thought they were appealing to me for help,” she told Satya, an animal advocacy and social justice magazine, in 1996. “Later, I seemed to run across primates everywhere: people on the same soi” — a side street — “with pet gibbons, primates for sale in markets.”

Inspired, she formed the International Primate Protection League two years later. Combining passion, outrage and relentlessness, the British-born Ms. McGreal became a formidable voice against man-made misery suffered by primates from Asia, Africa and South America.

She helped force India to stop exporting rhesus monkeys to the United States for military radiation experiments. She pushed for the U.S. government to close a lab at the University of California, Davis, that used smuggled baby gibbons in cancer virus experiments. She exposed trafficking rings like the one in which a Florida primate dealer smuggled six baby orangutans from Indonesian Borneo in crates marked “birds” with Moscow expected to be their final destination.

And in 1977, she opened a sanctuary on 10 acres in Summerville, S.C., near Charleston, for gibbons that had been confined in labs, zoos and roadside attractions, or kept as pets.

“Shirley was compassionate, passionate, committed — and courageous,” the primatologist Jane Goodall said in a statement after Ms. McGreal’s death. “She was not afraid to tackle anything and as a result went through some devastating lawsuits, all of which she won.”

Not quite. In 1983, Ms. McGreal wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of Medical Primatology, critical of a plan by the company Immuno to use captured chimpanzees for hepatitis research in Sierra Leone. Immuno sued her and several others for libel. The litigation became so onerous that Ms. McGreal and all but one defendant settled; her legal bills totaled $250,000 and her insurance company paid $100,000 for her settlement. Ultimately, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, held that her statement of opinion was not actionable.

Ms. McGreal died on Nov. 20 at her home on the grounds of the sanctuary. She was 87. Her husband, John, said she had had pneumonia a couple of times before she died.

In the late 1970s, Ms. McGreal learned from an article in The Washington Post that the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., was performing what she called traumatic experiments on rhesus monkeys imported from India. One experiment was to determine how long soldiers could continue to fight after being irradiated by a neutron bomb.

The monkeys were put on a treadmill — before and after lethal exposure to radiation — “and forced to run up to six hours at a time and given electric shocks if they slacked,” Ms. McGreal told The Detroit Free Press in 1977. “This is the most appalling, cruel research I have ever heard of. How can a scientist sit and watch while monkeys vomit and writhe in agony?” she added.

When Congress and the Department of Defense declined to take action against the experiments, which violated export restrictions against inhumane treatment, she contacted all the major newspapers in India and Prime Minister Morarji Desai. In November 1977, he ordered a ban on exporting rhesus monkeys, which went into effect the next year.

“I believe in preventing cruelty to all living beings in any form,” Mr. Desai wrote to Ms. McGreal in 1985. “This is the ancient Indian culture and a part of vegetarianism.”

Soon after the Indian ban started, Ms. McGreal said she learned that a company in Portland, Ore., had signed a contract with Bangladesh to export more than 70,000 rhesus monkeys and other primates over 10 years; some would have gone to the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute. Ms. McGreal organized a letter-writing campaign in the Bangladeshi press and appealed to the government. The contract was canceled.

“There are very good alternatives to a lot of animal research that have been developed,” she told The Free Press. “In a hundred years, people will look back to our concentration camps for monkeys and be appalled.”


Ms. McGreal with Beanie, a blind gibbon, at her sanctuary in South Carolina, which was dedicated to the primates.Credit…Acey Harper/Getty Images

Shirley Pollitt was born on May 4, 1934, in Mobberley, a village in Cheshire, England. Her father, Allan, worked for a bank, and her mother, Kate (Pearson) Pollitt, was a homemaker who had an emotional breakdown after her husband died in a car accident.

Shirley, who had a twin sister, Jean, earned a bachelor’s degree from Royal Holloway, University of London, where she studied Latin and French, and a master’s from the school in teaching education.

She began a career largely teaching languages in schools and colleges in the United States, France and Australia, and later received a second master’s from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in French literature. Then, in 1971, she received her Ph.D in education from the University of Cincinnati.

She accompanied her husband, an engineer, to New Delhi, where he worked on a National Science Foundation project, and then to Thailand, where he had a job with the United Nations. It was there that Ms. McGreal encountered the infant macaques at the airport.

“She became very concerned with their welfare and did research to see who was doing what to whom in the animal trade,” Mr. McGreal said in a phone interview. “Her interest in them happened in an instant.”

After starting the International Primate Protection League in 1973 with Ardith Eudey, a primatologist (who would remain an adviser until her death in 2015), Ms. McGreal became known for her willingness to help other conservation groups financially and for her worldwide network of people who alert her to primates in life-threatening situations and identify smugglers.

“We’ve been amazed that someone didn’t kill her,” said Lois K. Lippold, a primatologist who runs a foundation to protect the douc langur monkey and is on the league’s board. “She’s gotten death threats, and they just steel her even more. It takes a certain kind of person to do what she does because the picture is so grim for primates everywhere.”

Dr. Lippold said that Ms. McGreal rallied many others in the primate conservation world to write to the prime minister of Vietnam five years ago to persuade him not to commercially develop part of a forest in Da Nang where doucs eat.

“She helped save that area,” Dr. Lippold said, adding, “The thing about Shirley is that if she came after you, you had no escape.”

Ms. McGreal’s awards include one in 1993 from the Interpol Wildlife Crime Working Group/Dutch Police League for exposing smugglers and the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II in 2008.

She is survived by her husband, who designed and built the gibbon houses and outdoor enclosures at the sanctuary.

Some 30 gibbons live in the sanctuary, which now encompasses 37 acres. Peppy arrived from a lab. Gibby, now in his 60s, had been in a lab and a sanctuary. Chloe had been a pet. Gary, Jade, Maui, Erin and Jade were moved from zoos or sanctuaries. Shanti, another lab refugee, had children at the sanctuary with Arun Rangsi, who came from the Davis lab after it lost its National Cancer Institute funding.

Arun Rangsi, which means Rising Sun of Dawn, was 2 when he arrived, nameless and only identified by a blue tattoo on his stomach, HL-98. He repeatedly struck his head on the side of his cage as he sought to adapt to his new surroundings.

Ms. McGreal consulted a psychiatrist, and the doctor advised her to mirror Arun Rangsi’s behavior to show it didn’t achieve anything, she told The Charleston City Paper in 2013. “So I was banging my own head against the wall,” Ms. McGreal said.

It worked. Eventually, Arun Rangsi stopped his self-destructive behavior. He lived for 37 more years at the refuge.

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