When planning a new habitat to build for the primates at the St. Louis Zoo, the zoo looked to the primates.
The primates like to climb. They like to explore. They like to go outside.
Some even like to interact with you.
The zoo announced on Wednesday a new attraction, Primate Canopy Trails, where you and the primates will be able to explore, climb and go outside together.
Picture mature trees connected by netted tunnels for the monkeys and lemurs, and among and around those a raised boardwalk, climbing structures and a clear tunnel for the humans.
The $11.5 million expansion, which is projected to open in two years, will be built in the south end of the zoo next to the Primate House, in the space once occupied by the old sea lion arena. It will be free to the public and funded by donors. Construction starts later this year.
“We can only imagine what it will be like for some of these animals who have never felt the sun on their face,” said Heidi Hellmuth, the zoo’s curator of primates. “It’s going to be life-changing.”
The new area will be about 35,000 square feet, slightly bigger than the footprint of the Primate House itself. About 45 primates — old world monkeys, new world monkeys and lemurs — live at the Primate House, built in 1925. They will all get to use the new outside space.
The Primate House has been renovated over the years and now has 13 indoor habitats with clear fronts that allow visitors to see and interact. Zookeepers change up the spaces, adding logs and ropes and climbing structures, and the monkeys sometimes use tunnels to go between habitats.
The Primate House has six small outdoor enclosures, but they’re used only by lemurs and saki monkeys. The other primates can’t use them because they’re either too small or too strong for the structures.
About three years ago, Hellmuth recalled, keepers first brought the saki monkeys to the outdoor structures.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” she said. The looks in the sakis’ eyes changed as they felt the wind blow in their faces for the first time, listened to the birds, and felt the warmth of the sun. “They didn’t want to come inside for days,” she said.
Animal welfare, and the fact that most of the primates live indoors, was a big factor when the zoo completed a strategic plan about five years ago. The humans knew the animals would benefit from going outside.
Visitors to the zoo this spring may have noticed workers taking down the old arena and planting grass. Two large sycamore trees and one blue ash tree will be wrapped in netting and serve as habitats.
Surveyors made 3D scans of the existing trees, which they dropped into a computer model to figure out where to build the tree habitats and how to build around the root systems, said David McGuire, the zoo’s vice president of architecture and planning.
They also had to rebuild the zoo train tunnel that runs under that piece of ground, and work plans around that.
A total of eight habitats and more than a dozen netted tunnels connecting them will mean there could be more than 70 combinations of monkeys, lemurs and habitats, which will keep things exciting for everyone — even the humans. The boardwalk will climb about 15 feet above ground, placing humans among the trees.
“Our greatest mission is connecting animals with people,” said Michael Macek, zoo director. “We are always looking for new ways to do that.”
The animals will be able to choose among certain habitats. If they want a break from the crowds, they can go in shelters inside the habitats. Keepers can also take them back and forth between the Primate House and the Canopy Trails.
An animal care building will sit in the middle of Primate Canopy Trails and will serve as an enrichment area for the primates and a shelter from weather. The building will not be open to the public, but visitors will be able to look through windows at keepers and animals.
The area will be planted with “browse gardens” where food will be cultivated for the animals, and inside the habitats they can pick a tasty treat, like willow, mulberries and marigolds. They’ll also be able to see and interact with birds and insects that will naturally fly inside, and even eye their predator neighbors: the lions in Big Cat Country.
The public will be able to get to Primate Canopy Trails through three main entrances, one of them through the Primate House. At another entrance will be tree climbing structures for kids, similar to the climbing tree structure at the Magic House children’s museum.
While the public will be able to get among the trees with the primates, they’ll keep a safe distance — at least 6 feet from netted structures. Panels separate the primates from humans in overhead spots. “So you don’t have too natural of an experience,” Hellmuth joked.
The St. Louis Zoo got ideas for the attraction from the Philadelphia Zoo, whose Zoo360 features tunnels and trails throughout the zoo for animals to explore outside their normal habitats. As they planned, Hellmuth and other staffers also took a field trip to City Museum in St. Louis, to study humans climbing in the wild.
The new exhibit also means more ways for keepers and researchers to study the primates and may also open up breeding possibilities and larger primate family groups.
“It’s a quantum leap forward in so many ways. Animals, staff, visitors, everything,” said Hellmuth. “I think this will be an exhibit you hear about for years to come.”