Perspectives March 3, 2021

Architects aren’t monkeying around at this chimpanzee sanctuary

Designing a Sanctuary for Chimpanzee Retirees

As designers, we’re always putting people first. So surely if we can design for humans, we can also design for chimpanzees, which share 99% of our DNA. Chimp Haven, an organization dedicated to providing exceptional care for chimpanzees retired from medical research, has worked in close collaboration with architects Ed Cordes and Lea Anne Leatherwood since 1995, pioneering design for the health and well-being of these human-like animals.  Since then, Chimp Haven has flourished into a 200-acre woodland refuge in Louisiana for chimps previously used in medical research. Currently the largest in the world, the sanctuary cares for more than 300 of the animals, giving them a safe, peaceful environment to enjoy their retirement.

An aerial view of the 220-acre forested site.

Following the passing of the 2000 Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection (CHIMP) Act, which ended the practice of using chimps as laboratory test animals in the U.S., Chimp Haven founder and primatologist Linda Brent approached Cordes with a new idea: designing a sanctuary for these newly retired chimps to live out the remaining years of their lives in enjoyment. On average, chimps live to be roughly 30-40 years old in the wild and up to 60 or older at a sanctuary like Chimp Haven.

Chimps are naturally social creatures that live, play, and work in multi-generational communities.

Cordes quickly brought Leatherwood into the project, and both served as pro-bono consultants to Brent and her Chimp Haven co-founder Amy Fultz. Together, they surveyed the country for land suitable for such a specialized place, and eventually hit gold when 220 acres of virgin forest in Keithville, LA, were donated to the cause. After securing a site for their vision to unfold, the partnership between Brent, Leatherwood, and Cordes evolved from consultative to collaborative.

“For 30 years, we just never stopped working together to realize a more complete vision,” says Cordes, who specializes in projects that serve the scientific community. “Our design team has consistently come together, for the chimps, to create a one-of-a-kind retirement community.”

From right to left: Edwin Cordes, Lea Anne Leatherwood, and Dr. Linda Brent
An aerial view of the forest plots, designed for multi-generational chimpanzee communities to free roam.

Chimp Haven began as a simple plot of forest, large enough to reintegrate the retired chimpanzees into a lush natural environment that is as close to what they would experience in the wild as possible. Chimps are naturally social creatures that live, play, and work in multi-generational communities of 15-20 animals, so the area for roaming was carefully orchestrated to facilitate and accommodate these activities. During this first phase, the design team created gentle borders, surrounding the site with a deep, undulating moat, and dividing the site into three multi-acre plots with a timber barrier. Both elements were meticulously designed to blend in with the existing environment.

“The chimps seamlessly flowed back into their family units when given enough space to explore, and enough natural resources to put to use,” says Leatherwood. “Yet the proximity of the animals to veterinarians and care professionals allowed Chimp Haven to monitor the chimps’ health and progress, and easily offer them any necessary support.”

Cordes and Leatherwood have worked to help accommodate the greatly expanded scope of Chimp Haven’s caregiving since their first sanctuary design in the late 1990s. With each subsequent phase, the sanctuary was able to better address a diverse range of chimp personalities and behavioral and medical needs. The greater variety of architecture and landscape caters to all group sizes, from the largest roamers to the most specialized spaces for aging animals.

“As a no-touch sanctuary, it is very important for our animal care team to create trusting relationships and long-term bonds with the chimpanzees, and design plays an important role in facilitating that,” says Amy Fultz, director of behavior at Chimp Haven. “Perkins&Will has been a valuable, trusted partner in designing spaces that protect the safety of our chimps and staff while still allowing relationships to blossom.”

In phases 2 and 3, completed between 2006 and 2016, the design team created four additional plans for forested areas, and built several specialized open-air corrals for chimps needing more personal attention and observation. These corrals, resembling massive open-air forested play yards, are specially crafted for elderly and less active chimpanzees. In fact, the team even designed bespoke equipment that chimps with physical ailments can use to stay active and healthy, such as shallower steps, ramps in lieu of stairs, and ladders to connect climbing structures and platforms.

“It’s amazing how closely the experiences of the chimps mirror our own life paths and experiences,” says Cordes. “Designing to address the chimps’ health and wellness—say, for a bad hip or arthritis—also reminds us of our shared roots and experiences.”
Details of a timber enclosure complete with dynamic climbing structures.

A key component to chimp longevity and healing is exercise and socialization through play, so special emphasis was placed on dynamic climbing structures within all the enclosures. Since Louisiana is not home to the chimp’s native trees and vines, jungle gyms are an important surrogate. The challenge, though, was that the play structures had to be accessible yet tough enough to match the intelligence and physical strength of chimpanzees. Indeed, human specifications no longer apply here: Everything had to be reimagined for a heavier, stronger user—one that’s used to physically overcoming obstacles that humans would ordinarily find unbreachable. When testing a 10-foot wall, for example, the design team watched in astonishment as chimps scaled it with ease, using the subtlest textures on the wall’s surface as handholds. After that, only the smoothest surfaces were considered.

“The open dialogue, collaborative process, and long-term nature of our relationship has allowed Perkins&Will to really understand how we operate on a day-to-day basis,” says Allen Smith, Facility and Grounds Director at Chimp Haven. “This allows the team to identify the best approach to developing thoughtful, unique designs that meet the needs of the wide array of chimpanzees in our care.”  The focus on listening and learning with each step of the design process is what encourages the partnership to continuously evolve and grow.

“We needed to use our imaginations to think of climbing structures for play and movement that were interesting and complex enough for this intelligent animal,” says Cordes. “It’s much different than just building a fence. We’re engaging their bodies and brains.”

Ongoing projects at Chimp Haven are now using design to move toward fostering engagement between Chimp Haven’s residents and the public. Carefully placed pavilions provide a scenic focal point for visitors to observe the chimps playing and relaxing in forested habitats during Chimpanzee Discovery Days, the sanctuary’s public events taking place four times a year.

A time lapse video records the team's pro bono work on a pavilion at Chimp Haven

Cordes and Leatherwood played a key role in creating an open-air visitors’ pavilion, a design-build project that serves as the centerpiece for the sanctuary’s visitors. The architects stayed several nights at the sanctuary, building the structure by hand. It bears resemblance to the green foliage around it, serving as a safe, secluded viewing platform for researchers, students, and other guests. Visitors can observe the chimps roaming and playing in two forested habitats from the safety of visitors’ pavilions. Designed with timber and glass, these observation decks blend into the forest to avoid disrupting the lives of the animals.

“For the first time, we felt collectively confident in our ability to open this world up to those who share our passion, without disrupting the peaceful environment that Chimp Haven is committed to providing for the chimps,” says Leatherwood. “It’s so rewarding to see the responses from the visitors, from ages five to 50.”

The founding of Chimp Haven has invited new dialogues about the power of design and its positive effects on animal well-being. This unique project has grown and evolved with the combined trust and collaborative spirit of the Chimp Haven and Perkins&Will partnership. Bringing scientific expertise and design thinking together allows for the shared vision to continuously move forward and achieve new goals, from technical interventions to social programming. Cordes and Leatherwood look forward to being trusted partners of the Chimp Haven team as the sanctuary continues its innovative work.