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Against Burnout The Satya Interview with Shirley
Photo Courtesy of the International Primate Protection League
On December 15, 2003, toxicologist Dr.
Frederick Coulston died in Alamogordo, NM where he had established
research facility, the Coulston Foundation (TCF). The foundation
was formed in 1993 when Coulston merged several of his for-profit
primate research ventures to create the nation’s largest
chimpanzee facility. At its peak, TCF housed over 600 chimpanzees
as research subjects. Chimpanzees and monkeys were used to test
chemicals, drugs, and infectious diseases.
TCF has been formally charged four times by the USDA for violations
of the Animal Welfare Act for inadequate veterinary care, water
deprivation, and the negligent
deaths of ten chimpanzees and four monkeys. These notorious animal welfare violations
and Coulston’s public statements regarding breeding chimpanzees “like
cattle” for research and potential organ and blood banks made him the target
of many animal activist groups. Animal advocates were further outraged when the
U.S. Air Force placed 111 of their research chimpanzees in Coulston’s care
in 1998 instead of retiring all of them to sanctuaries.
Coulston’s animal welfare record didn’t improve, and as a result,
the NIH, FDA, and USDA pulled their funding from his lab. Without these funds,
Coulston was on the verge of bankruptcy and desperately needed to sell his facility.
In 2002, he contacted Dr. Carole Noon, director of Save the Chimps (STC), and
with generous funding from the Arcus Foundation and others, STC was able to purchase
the New Mexico facility and retire all the primates from research.—S.I.
In 1973, Shirley McGreal founded the International
Primate Protection League (IPPL) to work for the conservation and well-being
of all living
primates—every species of which, except humans, is listed on
the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). From primates in Cuban zoos
to the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam and China, Saudi Arabian pet
shops to U.S. airports, IPPL has exposed trade in wildlife and uncovered
numerous black markets for primates around the world time and again.
In importing countries where IPPL works to monitor primate trade, it
has discovered and reported numerous illegalities—unfortunately,
an act that often involves great risk to one’s person, yet hasn’t
stopped those working hard with IPPL.
In addition to the ten-acre gibbon sanctuary that IPPL runs at their Summerville,
South Carolina headquarters, they provide crucial support for sanctuaries around
the world working to care for and protect the habitats of primates in the region.
These include the Limbe Wildlife Center in Cameroon, Tacugama in Sierra Leone,
Kalaweit in Borneo, and many others traversing the globe. They also publish IPPL
News to educate readers in more than 50 countries about action that can be taken
to protect primates.
In 1992, McGreal made the United Nations Global 500 Honor Roll. In 2003, IPPL
celebrated 30 years—a celebration boosted with a letter from Prince Philip,
president emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund and husband of Queen Elizabeth,
who wrote, “I am delighted to offer my warmest congratulations (to the
League) and my special congratulations to its founder, Dr. Shirley McGreal. The
League can look back with much pride on its very considerable achievements...most
primate populations around the globe are in a better state thanks to its activities.”
Fresh off the plane from the CITES conference in Thailand, Shirley McGreal spoke
on the phone with Rachel Cernansky about the conference, the state of primates
today and sanctuary work of hers in South Carolina and of others around the world,
and—with a sad ending—her favorite gibbon, Beanie.
You’ve just returned from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in Thailand. How did that
There are good things and bad things. There were 2,000 people from all over the
world and 160 or so member nations represented. The purpose of CITES is to “regulate” trade
so that it doesn’t cause the extinction or near extinction of any species.
Unfortunately compassion doesn’t fit in, even though the aesthetic value
of animals is noted in their preamble. It’s a very utilizationist treaty
as to how many they can afford to kill, or trade, without wiping out a species.
So it’s not at all a perspective of animal protection, which we’d
like to see. A lot of groups band together as a species survival network and
use what we call a precautionary principle, in that we make recommendations on
policies, always against downlisting [their endangered status] and always in
favor of adding protection. But you try to work within their parameters, which
is sometimes very difficult.
There were some bad things. The sport hunting industry and trade lobbyists were
all lobbying for increased utilization, and they had some successes. Namibia
and South Africa each got permission to allow the sport hunting of five black
rhino a year, which is just pathetic considering there’s only about 5,000
left in the whole world. And Swaziland, which has 600 white rhino, got permission
to export ten percent of its population every year to South Africa, and to actually
sport hunt one percent.
The good side was the Ayeyarwady dolphin—which is much sought for exhibition
in these horrible dolphinariums going up across Asia and worldwide—got
protected under Appendix One and will no longer be traded at all. And there was
partial protection for two sets of trees—the agarwoods or sandalwood trees,
which are used heavily for incense and soap, particularly in Arab countries,
and the Ramin, a peat forest tree, which is being destroyed in Indonesia by logging
Also, the Great White Shark went up [on the protection list]. We were all pleased
that Japan’s proposal to allow trade in Minke whales went down. The Whaling
Commissioner for Japan had earlier stated that whales were cockroaches of the
ocean—that didn’t go down so well—and this time he accused
whales of eating fish. So all the great whales are going to remain free from
exportation. But Japan is still going to do its “scientific” whaling
and Norway’s still going to whale—so you get those problems, but
at least it didn’t open the trade wider.
There was also stuff on the protection of great apes; and a lot on enforcement
because so many countries aren’t enforcing CITES, so it was a very busy
You did an interview with Satya in 1996, and among other issues you touched briefly
on CITES. Have there been any improvements in international law and enforcement
with respect to animal welfare, specifically primates, since then?
CITES itself hasn’t changed. But unfortunately, Appendix Two doesn’t
ban trade—so trade patents are changing. [In terms of primates,] Appendix
One (total protection) lists all the apes and many monkeys, but there are a lot
of monkey species on Appendix Two, where trade needs to be monitored. Nepal for
example has a deal with the U.S. government; they’re setting up a breeding
center that will eventually export monkeys to the U.S. We all know that biowarfare
is where monkeys are being used increasingly—often in secret and in perfectly
horrible military labs. There’s no way to give chemical or biological warfare
agents in a pleasant way for the animal. And the experiments are really stressful
because once they’re infected with these vile agents, they’re sealed
in these little kind of microwaves because nobody’s going to handle an
animal dying of ebola or anthrax or anything like that. It’s very tragic.
We’re very appalled too that Cambodia is setting up large monkey labs done
by Chinese businessmen. It seems like they’re unstoppable.
For what purpose?
Just to breed and sell monkeys. It seems in the past animals were used as a last
resort and now they’re just jumping in with monkeys in a whole lot of areas.
There’s a breeding colony in South Carolina that just got a National Institutes
of Health contract to add 500 monkeys to its colony which already has 5,000.
We’re seeing these increases all over and it’s very, very distressing.
Can you talk about the IPPL sanctuary in South Carolina?
We have 31 gibbons here now. In 1981 we found out that gibbons were being used
in the U.S. in horrible studies about cancer. We fought it, and in the end, went
after the Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, to stop these experiments
by forcing the requirement of the Endangered Species Act on the labs. The labs
still got a permit to kill ten baby gibbons a year in their experiments. But
there was so much criticism and [the fact] that they never found the virus in
humans [caused them] to lose their funding.
Our first lab gibbon came to us from that lab, way back in 1981. He turned 25
this August, so it shows the long-term commitment [you make] when you take in
these animals. We also got Helen and Patty from that lab, one had been infected,
but survived. Then we started getting in other lab gibbons, unwanted zoo gibbons,
handicapped gibbons, pet gibbons… They have all really done very well and
we love having them.
Unfortunately we had a real tragedy last month. A very special gibbon, Beanie,
who came to us at nearly a year old with encephalitis, epilepsy, and was blind.
His seizures started to get worse and finally led to paralysis, so we had to
put him to sleep. We’ve had him for 14 years, we’re all devastated.
He had so much going against him, and yet was the most cheerful, wonderful animal
that you could ever meet. His case shows that even animals who normally would
be put to sleep don’t have to be, that you can create a good quality life
for them. He just was the greatest, most fun gibbon despite everything. He would
swing around, singing like the other gibbons. He needed a lot of personal attention
because of his seizure condition and blindness, so we got very bonded with him.
I think he’s a positive role model, to show how adversity can be survived.
How does education fit in? Do you do public outreach/education at the sanctuary?
We have good outreach and have had wonderful video and movies made. I do public
speaking around town—I’m doing the Sierra Club next week. But we
don’t want to be open to the public because that opens a whole can of worms,
when you have people tramping all over the place.
I’ve been working 31 years in animal protection, which is more than most
people, and our group was started before many people were born—possibly
including you—but I haven’t burned out and don’t intend to.
I think that having these animals here, singing and swinging, and everyday reminding
you of their cousins in the wild, has helped us—helped me—keep going.
I call the gibbons my vaccination against burnout.
Has enforcement improved at all over the years you’ve been working at this? Somewhat, but crimes involving wildlife are still the safest—[meaning,]
if you get caught drug smuggling, you can get put away for a very long time;
for wildlife smuggling, the longest sentence I’ve ever heard of is seven
years (which was cut down to about five). So they don’t have any meaningful
[punishment]. Matthew Block in Miami, who smuggled six baby orangutans internationally,
got a 13 month sentence, which was considerably knocked down. Six baby orangutans—members
of an endangered species—[were] stuffed in crates labeled birds and put
upside down. He’s out of prison, he’s back in business.
Right now we have a case against the company LABS of Virginia which was indicted
for bringing in baby and adult monkeys on false paperwork, claiming they were
born in captivity, when they were caught in the wild. David Taub, its president,
and the company were each charged with four felonies and a slew of misdemeanors
and two other company officials with misdemeanors, and they plea-bargained it
down so the company will pay a fine and the charges will be dropped. But that
means nothing, how can you fine a corporation enough to make a difference? It
was absolutely outrageous to see this happen.
It never ends because our government has got this insatiable demand for monkeys
and they don’t care really very much, I don’t think, who supplies
To shift gears back to IPPL, can you talk about one or two of the sanctuaries
you support and the work they are doing, some of your favorites, specifically
ones run by locals?
One favorite is called Kalaweit, started in Borneo by a young man called Chanee.
He’s got over 150 gibbons in Borneo and about 60 siamangs in Sumatra. He
went to zoos as a little boy, decided he hated them, and got stuck on gibbons.
He’s only about 25, and is so well organized and so totally dedicated.
And Kalaweit has an FM radio station which now covers a larger part of Borneo—that’s
really exciting. They have popular music interspersed with conservation messages,
because nobody’s going to listen if it’s just conservation. It’s
really great. We sent him a $35,000 grant this year and have funds committed
to send him next year.
An especially nice one in Africa is Limbe, it’s a small sanctuary in Cameroon
and they have everything big and small. They have about 12 gorillas, about 20
chimps and all kinds of monkeys. The monkeys are rare; they have these very localized
guenon species that are getting slaughtered for the meat trade. This place used
to be a zoo, now converted into a sanctuary and they have wonderful education
programs: a children’s discovery club; a group called the Reformation Theater
Group, which are Africans who are doing plays about the evils of harming animals.
Limbe is just a perfect project we think.
Sanctuaries present something of a conflict of interest, in that they
haven for rescued primates, but don’t necessarily address the real problems
facing them; and efforts put toward sanctuaries potentially could be otherwise
directed at fighting the source, not just addressing the by-product. What are
your thoughts on this?
That kind of argument can come from a variety of sources. If you get it from
some of these large, what I call mega-groups, they don’t seem to like any
money to be spent on animals. They want to spend it on salaries, jet-set travel,
and you know… I don’t think that the sanctuaries are the problem.
If you look at where the money is going, huge sums go to these groups that do
not have any sanctuaries at all. I just can’t see that none of the money
should go to animals. And when you get these animals and they live with you,
they’re so grateful to be with you because they could be dead. They don’t
need to exhibit the animals—[there’s] a real distinction between
sanctuaries and zoos.
And then two, if these high profile groups have got rescue campaigns, they can’t
run the campaign if they have nowhere to put the animals. So their existence
is good in that way too.
I’m sure our gibbons are much happier that they’re here, and I think
that their presence inspires me to work harder on behalf of primates in the wild,
because that’s where they should be living. So certainly, I think you can
do both and combine them.
Are there any re-introduction sanctuaries, and have they been successful?
Yes, there’s HELP in the Congo that has successfully reintroduced chimps
into the Congo forests. One in Gabon is trying to reintroduce gorillas. A lot
of them are trying these large electric fence enclosures [where they can] be
protected and supplemented with food if necessary. Takugama, a chimp sanctuary
in Sierra Leone, is absolutely wonderful and survived the civil war there. They
have a very large electric fence system and a wild chimp has come in to live
with the chimps there—it’s the funniest thing I ever heard—because
during the civil war it was so unsafe there.
It knew it needed refuge.
Yeah. These large electric fenced enclosures are the next best thing to the wild.
The wild is definitely not a safe place to just release the animals to. It’s
a problem facing all the sanctuaries, because they have to try to move the animals
into semi-natural or natural, completely wild settings, because there’s
so many coming in. They are trying to address the problem, but you just can’t—trees
are being chopped down, the poachers are poaching, and nobody is really stopping
Well that’s another problem that activists, conservationists, etc. face:
how to address primate protection within a larger, complex social setting and
recognize all the related problems—habitat loss, environmental degradation,
poverty, AIDS, civil wars, etc. Do you have any advice on how to integrate these ‘battles’?
Well we have to work on them all, and of course the biggest problem is human
population growth. We should all be very active in anything to spread the word,
you know, planned parenthood—and I don’t mean the organization, I
mean any form that reduces this appalling population growth throughout the world.
I don’t know how this is going to be done. Habitat loss of course results
from that. So you try to keep a broad perspective. And there are ways that primates
benefit the communities, they certainly benefit the forest habitat by seed dispersal
and things like that. There’ve been some quite good projects, like the
gorilla viewing in Rwanda has been very successful. People should try some of
these ecotours [in] places like Costa Rica, to see animals in their natural habitat
and support the infrastructure—and in a way that doesn’t benefit
just big outfitters, you have to see that some of the benefits and jobs go to
the localities. Jane [Goodall] is doing a good job on that—her Roots ‘n’ Shoots
organizations are going around the world, trying to get kids involved at the
school level, and changing curriculum and education, things like that.
So you think that ecotours—if they’re genuine—can play a positive
role for the communities they’re in?
Definitely, because you can’t take away people’s livelihoods, if
their livelihood is poaching, and offer them nothing else. I see it as a mixed
blessing. It has to be properly done.
What’s it been like as a woman involved in animal protection?
Well it’s really hard for women. Most donors are women and I hate to say
it but women seem to prefer to donate to causes run by men. I mean, I have seen
so much silliness in the animal movement, you go to these conferences and see
these groupie girls surrounding these men, some of whom you wouldn’t look
at for five minutes if he didn’t call himself an animal activist. And it’s
I remember very soon after I started, a fundraiser who passed on a couple of
years ago, told me, “if you’re ever going to make any money, you’ve
got to have a man on top.” I said excuse me; he said that’s the way
to make the money—you get some nice smooth man to talk up these old ladies.
I thought, Oh my god, I’d rather remain poor; and unfortunately, that’s
what has happened. And when you’re poor other groups will steal credit
for work you do, and other groups do programs and things you’d like to
do, but can’t because you don’t have the resources. But it’s
really stuck in my craw, the fact that women don’t see that 90 percent
of heads of SPCAs and animal groups are men, whereas 90 percent of the donors
are women. I would’ve thought with women’s lib, and sophisticated
women would have made a difference by now. But you see these little gals at the
AR conferences, young chicks chasing after these senior or geriatric activists.
It’s just—it blows my mind.
What gives you hope?
I don’t feel optimistic for the future of wildlife unless we can reverse
population trends, habitat loss. What gives me some hope is the young groups.
There’s a wonderful young group run by Chinese vegetarians, and every time
we hear about these little groups in Indonesia or Singapore working to [counter]
very difficult cultures, we help them. When you see these young peppy people,
we feel that work is going to be carried on, that there’s always going
to be a good voice for the animals because animals are just so great and make
our world so wonderful and it’s impossible not to see it.