Gibbons swing like trapeze artists as their whooping calls echo across the sanctuary. This isn't some far off land. It's actually just off I-26 in Summerville, the home of the International Primate Protection League (IPPL) where Shirley McGreal and her team care for 37 gibbons, many of whom had rough starts.
Some were kept in zoos. Others were raised as pets. And then there were those bred for labs. In many cases, these mistreated gibbons just needed a place to retire. So, McGreal takes them in. And she knows every one of the gibbons — their stories and quirks — by name. There's Igor, who was a test subject for 26 years. He had developed a bizarre behavior where every time he saw another gibbon he would start biting himself. The lab's solution was for Igor to live in a black plexiglass cage. But that didn't work. He would scratch away the paint, and when he'd see another gibbon, he'd gnaw himself raw.
When Igor's time at the lab was done, McGreal was contacted to help. She welcomed Igor and built him a special housing unit in the back, slightly removed from the other gibbons. Now, Igor hangs out in his own space, and he still sees the occasional gibbon. But he no longer bites himself when he sees his simian siblings. Instead, he waits for animal care workers to brush his hair, and he watches TV. He's fond of country music videos.
McGreal tries to find matches for her gibbons, but in Igor's case he probably won't ever find a mate. A few of the other males will also live the bachelor lifestyle, but that's because female gibbons are harder to come by since they're hunted by poachers for their young. "They kill about 20 females to get one baby," McGreal explains.
Another lab-raised gibbon, Arun Rangsi, was lucky enough to find a mate. Born in a lab at the University of California-Davis, he had trouble adapting when he first arrived at the sanctuary. He'd bang his head against his cage. It got so bad that McGreal called in a psychiatrist. "[He] said, 'He sounds like an autistic child, like a human autistic kid. So I suggest you start banging your own head along with him,' so I was banging my own head against the wall," McGreal says. The psychiatrist recommended mirroring the disruptive behavior to show that it didn't accomplish anything, and it worked.
Today, Arun Rangsi no longer bangs his head, and he doesn't respond to humans by yelling or physically harming himself. Instead, he turns his back to McGreal for a back rub, which is a way the gibbons show trust and affection. "They're more dangerous from the front," McGreal adds. Soon Arun Rangsi returns the favor and starts playing with McGreal's hair, brushing and picking at it like a mother grooms her young.
While the lab-raised gibbons had trouble adapting to their new homes, they didn't have the hardest time. "The worst of the lot are the pets," McGreal says. "They're humanized and expected to live up to human expectations."
Chloe was kept as a pet and had all her teeth removed. "The vet who did it was a butcher. He left a chunk of her canines in her," says McGreal. But Chloe's made a recovery — albeit a toothless one. Now in her 40s, she exceeds the 25-year life expectancy for wild gibbons, and she's very active. But Chloe is also hostile. "She likes a few people, but I'm not one. She hates all women, nearly all," McGreal says.
Chloe swings from one side of the cage to the other, or she paces the cage, watching McGreal uneasily.
Not all of the gibbons at the sanctuary were mistreated prior to their arrival. A few were born at the sanctuary before McGreal and her crew started giving the males vasectomies. Since the gibbons could never live in the wild, McGreal thought it inhumane to breed more for captivity.
Ahimsa was the first gibbon born at the sanctuary (his parents are Arun Rangsi and his mate Shanti). He steals his mate's food and plays with the caretakers, even trying to grab the empty food buckets, but Ahimsa only has three limbs. While swinging, one of his legs got twisted, and he double-backed to correct the twist but injured it beyond repair. At IPPL, he's adjusted to life without one of his legs, but in the wild it could have been a different story.
For gibbons, the wild is Southeast Asia, which is where McGreal first established IPPL in 1973. In the early '70s, her husband's job had them living in Thailand. It was there she first encountered primate abuses. While picking up cargo at an airport, McGreal saw a row of cages with stumptail macaques squashed inside, looking terrified. Seeing how those primates were treated was enough for her to start researching how other ones were being treated across the globe. "Primates were being used in exhibits around the floating markets, and [I] learned that the U.S. military had a lab in Bangkok using gibbons for experiments," she says. Through this research, she discovered there were no other organizations fighting to protect all primates, so she started one.
McGreal wasn't content to just raise money for research. She took action. When she found out that Singapore was a gibbon smuggling center, she tracked down dealers and their shipments. One time she even posed as a would-be buyer. Having received the names of workers at a gibbon trading center, she learned the details of how the primates were smuggled into the country from Thailand. A corrupt customs officer would let the gibbons cross the border, and then the smugglers would transport the animals in empty gas tanks placed underneath trucks.
McGreal was getting ready to wrap up her mission and take the information that she learned to journalists, when she received a phone call from one of the smugglers. "I was scared for a moment and thought I had been unmasked," she says. "But then he asked me if I would stay on, and he would take me to the pony races in Penang that weekend."
The IPPL also helped shut down the research lab where Arun Rangsi came from. Once gibbons were put on the endangered species list, the lab had to apply for a permit to continue testing on them. The lab delayed this filing, and the IPPL reported them to the authorities. The lab eventually did apply. "They were given a permit to kill 110 baby gibbons on the really wacko grounds that you had to have had gibbons born at the lab in order to kill them," McGreal says. "Therefore killing those gibbons was part of conservation. [This] removed pressures from the gibbons in the wild. They went crazy killing the gibbons." The lab closed after its backers protested, and Arun Rangsi found his way to the IPPL.
"There are no gibbons in research labs now. We got nearly all of them out, you know by pushing the permitting, then we pushed one thing that oddly worked," she says. "We were really pushing on working on increasing the cage sizes. And they did increase them to about 5×5×7, and they were about 2×2×4 and that meant that it was harder to get the cages through doors." She adds, "That really brought the end of it."
Ironically, the gibbons at the sanctuary in Summerville, where McGreal moved along with IPPL in 1977, still live in cages (the city doesn't allow them to run free). But they are palatial in comparison to their previous homes. They're more like houses, and many of the cages have smaller shed-like buildings where the gibbons can go to stay warm. That's also where they sleep, to keep their whooping from disturbing the neighbors. Caged paths run high above the ground, so the gibbons can explore and investigate what's going at the sanctuary.
Although IPPL is based in Summerville, McGreal pays attention to what's happening in the primate world. "We have an international network that feeds us information. We also get interesting messages, which always check out, from a couple of moles," she says. "We get information about abuses from tourists and locals, often with good photos. We have sent investigators to Cambodia, Morocco, and Gibraltar."
Now, McGreal splits her time between caring for the gibbons, applying for grants and funding, and promoting the primate cause worldwide. She's even received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II. "I was called to get my award and was scared I'd trip but stayed vertical," McGreal recalls. "The Queen had no hat or gloves or fancy jewelry. She shook my hand and inspected my gibbon necklace, and I got a couple of minutes chat time."
That wasn't McGreal's first encounter with the royals. "I have known Prince Philip for years and have dozens of letters from him. He's not too happy when I don't answer his letters," she says. "I was staying at a tacky hotel near Euston Station in London when a phone call arrived asking me to come early to the palace for a private meeting in his sitting room. We spent an hour together chatting ... For some reason he always liked me and IPPL."
The International Primate Protection League isn't open to the public, but you can sponsor your favorite gibbon. To learn more, visit ippl.org.
The gibbons eat a pound of food a day, and with 37 gibbons that adds up. In a week, they'll go through 259 pounds of fresh produce. To counter the high costs, McGreal and her team have made local connections. They go to local markets — like the ones at Exchange Park in Ladson and in Summerville.
Natural omnivores, gibbons stick to a mostly vegetarian diet but occasionally steal and eat birds' eggs and snack on flies.
At the sanctuary, the gibbons are fed a purely vegetarian diet, but they've been known to supplement their diets on their own. Recently, a gibbon named Michael took it upon himself to get some extra protein from a cardinal he captured. Squirrel tails have also been found in the cages.
"Breakfast is vegetable based. We do change it up a good bit. We give them cooked sweet potatoes, romaine lettuce every day, and a protein supplement," explains Brandon Spivy who's part of the animal care staff.
Lunch is mostly fruit-based — lots of grapes, some pineapple, bananas. And dinner is another banana.
They get their share of treats too, like Fig Newtons and dates. And the gibbons love the treats. At one point, Courtney, a female gibbon, hugs McGreal pulling her in. She plays with McGreal's hair and then reaches for her pocket, hoping to find a cookie. She doesn't, but the closeness between her and McGreal is enough for now.