Nestled deep in the pine forests of northwestern Louisiana, Chimp Haven, a sanctuary built specifically for rescued and retired chimpanzees, truly feels like a haven for primates and humans alike. Sitting on roughly two hundred acres of tall growth Southern Pine and unwieldly terrain within Caddo Parish’s Eddie D. Jones Nature Park, more than two hundred chimpanzees have come to live out their golden days in a safe and natural environment.
Our Houston office is very familiar with Chimp Haven. We were a part of the design team that worked with primate behaviorist Dr. Linda Brent, an expert in captive chimpanzee management, to build a facility that could improve the living conditions and long term care of chimps no longer wanted as research subjects, entertainers, or pets. This collaboration began in late 2000 when the federal government had just passed the CHIMP Act, which provides a sanctuary retirement system for chimps used in federally funded research. Chimp Haven was chosen to be the first national sanctuary to house these chimps and when the Phase I construction was completed in 2005, the first of these chimps started arriving to their new naturally outfitted home. Today, Chimp Haven is currently in the midst of a facility expansion to provide accommodations and veterinary care for a hundred more chimps.
As part of our Social Purpose efforts, this past spring a unique opportunity arose to design and build a visitor’s center for Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is, for the most part, not accessible to the public. After several years of being in operation, the facility has been able to open its doors at limited times of the year (“Discovery Days”) to help educate the public on this species and explain how the sanctuary provides long-term care for the chimps. Chimp Haven still relies on private donations for improvements and expansions, so Discovery Days brings in a small amount of much needed revenue for the facility. Discovery Days is extremely popular and on average between 700-1,000 visitors flock to the sanctuary in a day to get the chance to watch and see our next of kin in their natural habitats…just doing what chimps do. The chimps oblige by showing off their skills in digging up hidden treats in termite mounds with tools fashioned from the forest or by hooting and panting as they play in small groups at the edge of the moats that partially surround their habitat. Sometimes they sit at the moat edge staring back at the visitors staring at them, as if the perspective has reversed and humans are on view by curious chimps.
The existing visitor registration area was remotely placed. Upon entering, visitors had a five-minute walk over a bridge, down a meandering pathway through the tall pines, to the outer edges of the natural habitats. Moats keep the chimps in their habitats (fun fact: chimps are all muscle and can’t float or swim) and allow for a relatively flat and open grassy bank at the edge where chimps can be seen in full view. Working with humble finances, the original visitor’s area consisted of a metal storage building with a covered metal canopy. Visitor registration took place on rustic wood tables, which also served as a defacto “gift shop.” Chimp Haven tasked us with the goal of making this entrance feel more like a visitor’s center with a dedicated enclosed area for registration and purchasing tickets as well as incorporating a gift shop, educational signage, and providing an inviting gateway to the chimp’s natural habitats.
The first priority was to assemble ideas from the volunteer group, with the caveat being the design had to be within our capabilities of construction, available tools, limited budget, and timeframe. I thought to myself, “This will be the hardest volunteer effort we have ever done or possibly ever do.” Our timeline was short with the spring Discovery Days just beginning. But to everyone’s surprise, within a month, we had a design, a volunteer group of about 15 Perkins+Will staff, friends and family, and our shopping list.
Our design concept includes two shipping containers staggered in parallel and connected by decking and overhead fabric sails. Each container flanks one side of the entrance to the wood bridge, evoking a gateway to another world. One container houses storage and a transaction counter for registration and tickets, the other houses the gift shop.
After getting final approval from Chimp Haven, we began the work and divided into groups to develop and pre-manufacture the pieces – there was the Deck Crew, the Barn Door Crew, the Counter and Shelving Team, and the Cladding Team. After three weekends of pre-fabbing, it came time for the build weekend. We stayed on site for three days, some opting to camp out among the early morning hoots of the chimps. Each day started very early, but the team maintained their excitement, even after being completely drenched in paint, wood stain, sawdust, and sweat. We worked alongside additional volunteers from the local Home Depot and Chimp Haven staff. By the end of the weekend, everyone was completely exhausted, but proud of the massive undertaking and accomplishment of getting the job done and making the design come to fruition – this was truly design-build!
After making one final trip to wrap up the build, the new Visitor’s Center was open for Discovery Days. I watched as visitors eagerly waited in line at the new ticket counter, kids played in the newly paved gathering area and sat on the benches that we toiled over just the day before. The gift shop was an immediate hit, prominently displaying chimp artwork, t-shirts, plush toys, hats, and mugs on the open shelving. As I sat on a bench observing the swarm of activity, a man whose kids were playing in the background came over to chat and said he had been to Discovery Days the month before and could not believe the transformation that had taken place in such a short amount of time. I hope that this new gateway will attract more people to Chimp Haven, a sanctuary that works tirelessly to champion the importance and value of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees.