By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Kurt Schafer, speaking by telephone from Germany, acknowledges that he has communicated by phone with Assistant U.S. Attorney Priegues and that he has met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents in Germany, but says he will not be coming to Miami to testify. The Bangkok Six case, though, opened his eyes to some of the brutal realities of the international ape trade. "I am a bird dealer and I never had any dealings with primates," he explains. "When I saw how they had packed these animals, I was very disturbed. It made me think I don't want to have anything to do with that business."
His revulsion led him to cooperate with the Miami U.S. Attorney's Office, the International Primate Protection League, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which earlier this year aired an investigative report about primate smuggling generally and the Bangkok Six case in particular. In that program, Schafer openly admitted to his role in the illegal scheme but refused to name the "friend" who had asked him to help transport the orangutans, nor would he provide the identity of the person known only as M. (The BBC journalists were also unsuccessful in their attempts to interview Matthew Block at his Worldwide Primates office near the airport. Metro-Dade police were summoned to have them removed from Block's property.) In his recent telephone interview, Schafer again declined to name his co-conspirators.
Although he confirms he provided some information to Shirley McGreal and IPPL, Schafer has since developed a distaste for her. He says she is "spreading a bunch of lies," and he blames her for delays and problems with the federal investigation. "This whole thing would be finished if she had not played everyone against each other," he says. "She's calling around, faxing around, making up stories, telling people things. She calls an agent in the United States and pushes and pushes him, then she calls his boss and says the agent isn't doing anything. That's her way. Playing everyone against everyone. And for her everybody is crooked. The United States government is crooked. The German government is crooked."
McGreal's position as a key player in the volatile world of animal advocacy was as late arriving in her life as Matthew Block's career was early in his. Originally from Chesire, England, McGreal moved to Thailand in 1971 after completing a doctorate in the history of education. She had barely arrived in Bangkok with her husband, who was working for UNICEF, when a latent interest in animal welfare was catalyzed. "Unfortunately Thailand really is a country where you see a lot of exotic animals around you in the animal trade and the animal markets," she says. "Right at the freight area at the airport we could see the monkeys leaving. It was actually something quite dreadful."
McGreal soon began writing letters to experts around the world, describing what she was witnessing and attempting to solicit interest in forming some kind of group to protect primates. "Of course, this was strange because I had no relevant background in this," she recalls, "but the response was overwhelming." Return letters offered assistance and enthusiastic support for her idea, and in 1973 she formed the International Primate Protection League, dedicated to the conservation of species in the wild, to the well-being of individual animals, and to the improvement of regulations governing the primate trade. As one of its first projects IPPL organized Thai university students to monitor primate shipments departing from the Bangkok airport.
In late 1975, McGreal and her husband left Thailand and later settled in South Carolina. But her great distance from the native homes of some of the world's most endangered primates did nothing to dampen her interest. She continued in her unpaid position as chairwoman of IPPL from the town of Summerville, near Charleston, and devoted all her time to developing an international network of activists whose techniques ranged from writing letters and promoting petition campaigns to dangerous undercover operations in which IPPL members would impersonate animal smugglers in order to gather evidence of illegal activity. Among the successes, McGreal and her group are credited with persuading India and Bangladesh to ban the exportation of rhesus monkeys, with shutting down illegal wildlife-smuggling routes out of Singapore, and with exposing an animal-laundering network in Poland.
Along the way, she has also created enemies. "We really have become a threat to some of those people with vested interests in exploiting primates," McGreal says with apparent pride. "There is this real feeling that to get rid of the group or to get rid of me would be getting rid of a real thorn in the side."
Few people have felt the irritation of that thorn as sharply as Matthew Block. More than a year before she helped to instigate the current federal investigation into his alleged involvement in the Bangkok Six scandal, Shirley McGreal was hot on Block's trail. In January 1989, she sent a letter to Peter Gerone, head of the Delta Regional Primate Research Center, a facility located in Covington, Louisiana, and associated with Tulane University. The letter explained that McGreal's group had learned the laboratory planned to contract Block to import for leprosy experiments 150 African monkeys known as sooty mangabeys. "[Block's] firm has received very damning criticisms from the Department of Agriculture inspectors and has tried to undermine inspectors' authority by going over their heads," McGreal wrote. (With her letter, McGreal included several critical USDA inspection reports of Block's facility dating to the mid-Eighties that verified her statements.)