Rescued primates living longer, happier lives at Summerville sanctuary

Local News

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (WCBD) – It was 1973 when Shirley McGreal, then living in Southeast Asia, saw beady bright eyes staring back at her from between the slats of a wooden crate. 

The eyes belonged to a gibbon — a primate native to the region — who had fallen victim to the dangerous world of the pet trade, where gibbons were being sold into homes, zoos, or labs, only to later be discarded. 

In 1977, McGreal created the International Primate Protection League (IPPL) in Summerville as a gibbon sanctuary. The now 47-acre property remains nestled in a quiet area of the Lowcountry that is illuminated by the sounds of the primates singing to one another. 

Meg McCue-Jones, the Compliance and Outreach Manager, explained that the land was a sod farm in the late 70s and started taking in the gibbons that needed help soon after.  

One of the sanctuary’s residents, Gibby, is one of the oldest known living gibbons at over 60 years old.

Like most of the gibbons at the sanctuary, his life started off rough.

McCue-Jones said that Gibby was wild caught, and “with every gibbon wild caught, they shoot mom out of the tree, hoping baby falls, and then they take the baby.” 

He was first sold into the pet trade in by a Bangkok dealer, but that was just the beginning.  Gibby went to labs at Hofstra University and the State University at Stony Brook.

Researchers embedded electrodes in his skin as part of a locomotion project.  

The electrodes and thin wires were inserted into his muscles and connected him to a suit that would measure his muscle movements. McCue-Jones explained that this was obviously not an ideal situation on any aspect, whether it be a human or animal. 

At 44, Gibby made it to his first sanctuary, but the conditions were hard on his body. In March of 2007, just four years after his arrival, the IPPL reached out to the sanctuary to relocate not only Gibby, but several other gibbons. 

For Gibby, like the other 29 at the sanctuary, Summerville is his last stop. McCue-Jones says that the sanctuary is their forever home.

But with the pandemic, their home has become more difficult to manage.  

With fear of COVID-19 spreading to the primates, volunteers were no longer allowed to assist with the many daily tasks necessary to keep the place running.

 From hosing the outsides of the enclosures, to raking, food prep, and even assistance inside the office—the staff was left with mounting responsibilities.

The economic impacts of the pandemic left donors and community partners reeling financially, but the bills at the sanctuary remained steady.

As a non-federally funded organization, the IPPL relies heavily on donations to meet the needs of the animals.

Stacy Lambert, a Senior Animal Care Giver, said that since a lot of their population has started to reach geriatric ages, their vet bills are getting bigger as they are having more interventions and medications, different procedures, and checkup appointments with Dr. John Ohlandt. 

While expensive, their system of care has proven to work. 

Lambert says that in the wild, gibbons usually live about 30-35 years. However, in captivity, gibbons living into their 40s is normal. However, the IPPL has quite a few gibbons that are up in their 40s and 50s while, of course, Gibby is 62. 

Although the interventions from the IPPL show the ability of the sanctuary, McCue-Jones said all those at the IPPL ultimately wish there was not a need for them at all, and that the gibbons could live freely in the wild.

McCue-Jones said, “as Shirley has spoken of before, if you really think about it, do humans need sanctuaries, should we have them? Should we be treating the animals this way?” 

Resources to assist: 

To send the Gibbons a care package full of nuts, click here.

To donate to the IPPL’s missions and day-to-day operations, click here.

To send specified items needed by the IPPL via Amazon, click here.

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