Adventure awaits chimps inside Primarily Primates’ newest habitat adventure
by Nicole Rivard
Shrieks of delight and clapping rang through the air at Primarily Primates (PPI) March 22, but this time it wasn’t the chimpanzees, spider monkeys or gibbons expressing themselves. It was staff from PPI and Friends of Animals as well as invited guests who gathered outside the new PrimaDome, a.k.a. Oliver’s Playground, to cheer on Wanda and Beauregard as they experienced the new habitat for the first time.
“This is so emotional,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, as she waited for Wanda and Beau to walk from their enclosure through an overhead tunnel to the PrimaDome.
“This is exciting. It’s incredible to see,” added Don Barnes, who has a long history with PPI. His perseverance resulted in the chimps from the movie Project X finding a new home at the sanctuary.
“The PrimaDome is really a unique design. It’s great. It’s prefabricated and then put together. It’s powerful.”
Once inside, Wanda rolled in the grass and hopped onto the tire swing, while Beau climbed gracefully to the top of the cupola.
Brooke Chavez, director of PPI, shared their stories. “Beau was born in the wild and is 44 years old. He started off at Monkey Jungle in Florida. He made a lot of friendships there according to the documentation that we have read.”
But Beau wasn’t able to breed, so he was given up to the Buckshire Corporation in Pennsylvania, a company that leased animals out for protocols for medical research.
Wanda was born in a zoo and later found as a pet in a brothel in Philadelphia where her owners decided she had grown too large. She too ended up at the Buckshire Corporation. They came to PPI with two other males and seven other females in 1996.
“The most touching thing Wanda did on her first day in the playground was to lie on her back in the grass, playing ‘happy baby’ and wiggling her toes,” said Dr. Val Kirk, PPI’s veterinarian for the last eight years. “Beauregard, always the attention seeker, did backflips and spins and made silly faces. He is really enjoying running around, banging the barrels and climbing up to the cupola.
The seed for the PrimaDome was planted in 2012 when Feral toured the Center for Great Apes, a lovely sanctuary for chimpanzees and orangutans in Florida with an array of enclosures marketed by PrimaDome. The company’s geodesic domes connected through overhead tunnels to other habitats. Seeing the apes enjoying the vertical space inside the domes, Feral became inspired to introduce this design to PPI.
Enrichment elements in Oliver’s Playground at PPI include a grassy floor, a variety of climbing structures and hammocks, and a cupola where chimpanzees can climb 25 feet to view the tree tops. Overhead tunnels connect habitats so that three to five groups of chimpanzees have access to this exciting area in which to explore.
The flexibility of this new area allows care staff to vary play elements and hide toys and treats for the apes to discover throughout the day.
“A captive animal of such high intelligence as a chimpanzee needs regular mental stimulation to ward off boredom and maintain good mental and physical health,” Kirk explained. “This playground provides that and lends itself very well to the addition of further enrichment, making each visit to the playground a stimulating and fun adventure.”
Oliver’s Playground was made possible by support from the San Antonio Area Foundation and generous donations. Producer and director of Danger Dog Films, Andy Cockrum, joined by his father, made the first pledge to start off the fund-raising effort at PPI.
The Cockrums were on hand March 22 to pull the lever to open the tunnel so Wanda and Beau could enter Oliver’s Playground. It was Andy Cockrum’s idea to put the dome in the area where the late chimpanzee Oliver lived. He is working on a documentary depicting Oliver’s life.
“When I observed the chimpanzees step on the grass in Oliver’s Playground for the first time, it reminded me that this is a new chapter for PPI,” said Chavez. “Its presence serves as inspiration, and is evidence that through the generosity of our supporters, we can all significantly contribute to the shaping of our new sanctuary.”