St. Louis Zoo’s “Primate Canopy Trails” to change the way we interact with animals

The St. Louis Zoo says they have a new primate exhibit in the works that will change the way those animals live, and the way you see them, forever.


It was an announcement assuring that the animals occupying the current primate house will never be quite the same. The “Primate Canopy Trails” will allow folks coming out to the zoo to interact with these animals like never before.  But what the zoo is really excited about is what this will do for the animals.


“First of all, these animals, some of them for the first time in their lives, will get to go outdoors,” Curator of Primates Heidi Hellmuth said.  “Imagine if you hadn’t been outdoors at all.  Some of these animals haven’t felt the sun or the wind a day in their life.  So, it will be transformational for these animals’ lives to get outside and to get the psychological and physical benefits.”

The massive field behind the original Primate House, which was built in 1925, will see the transformation. $11.5 million will be spent adding an outdoor habitat onto the house.  And it will be more than just an outdoor space for the animals to play in.  This will put human and primate about as close together as has ever been done, and the experience will get underway right at the entrance.


“You can take a spiral staircase or, a much more elaborate climber, you can climb up to treetop level, and there you can climb through some tunnels, kind of like the City Museum, or walk on a much more sedate walkway, which I’ll probably do,” Hellmuth said. “Then you can even go through an acrylic tube at treetop level with all the animals around you.  If that’s not your speed, everybody can take a glass tunnel through one of the habitats just like our “Sea Lion Sound.”  So, you can go right through the middle and experience animals on every side of you.”


And the primates will not only be able to get outside for the first time, they’ll also be able to “choose their own adventure,” if you will.


“We have eight interconnected habitats where we can move animals around every day,” Hellmuth explains.  “Every day will be a different life for them. Some day they may be in habitat number four with a tunnel system, the next day they may be indoors and they have three separate spaces, and the next day they’re in number two and have the tunnels going through it.  So they’re never going to know what each day will bring, which is really a lot more like being in their natural environment.  So we’re going to be able to replicate that to a level I don’t think anyone ever has before.”


It will take about a year and a half to build, then some extra time to install landscaping and to simply let the animals get used to a major life change.  By 2021 you’ll be able to dive into what Hellmuth describes as the project of her career.


“It’s actually the only project I’ve been involved with in 30-plus years in this field, that has exceeded every expectation we had once we designed it. So this is going to be transformational for everyone involved.”


Hellmuth says the entire project is being funded by private donations. Another of the exhibit’s goals will be to explain the value of forests to both primates and us.  She refers to the forests as “the lungs of the world.”







George Sells George Sells is an Emmy Award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience in news. He has spent the last decade on the St. Louis media scene, working for KTVI Fox 2, HEC Media, and more recently as a host for KMOX Radio. His wife of twenty years, Julie, was born and raised in St. Louis. They have two kids and a dog.

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