Bennett Preps Home for Chimps in St. Lucie County

Tue April 13, 2004 - Southeast Edition
Cynthia W. Wright

A group of chimps will soon be living what many humans consider the American dream –– retirement in Florida.

After decades of solitary confinement in small, steel-mesh cages with cement floors, several hundred chimps will be housed in a sunny sanctuary being constructed in rural St. Lucie County, FL.

The Florida sanctuary was established in 2000 with the assistance of a $1 million grant provided by the Michigan-based Argus Foundation.

Wayne Bennett, head of Bennett Site Development of Ft. Pierce, FL, said the opportunity to build the sanctuary comes with unique challenges.

“It’s been a difficult site,” he noted. “We’ve got a lot of clay-type soils there. The rains have handicapped us a bit, although we’re ahead of schedule right now. We’re digging lakes and creating islands. We’re building mounds to make the view aesthetically pleasing.

“We’ve also modified some roads. Instead of being straight and institutionalized, we’re forming them into a more natural appearance. We relocated many of the native trees and took out all of the exotics, which often over take the indigenous greenery.”

Bennett Site Development is using a Kobelco 480 SK excavator to build containment lakes, which will also act as moats for the chimps.

“We’re in several stages right now,” he said. “Currently there’s five Terex off-road dump trucks –– 35 and 40-ton models. We’re loading those with the Kobelco to build the islands and to haul the fill from the lakes. We’re spreading the fill with a John Deere 700 H bulldozer; also a Caterpillar 140 H for fine grading.”

The company also has two John Deere 9320 agricultural tractors pulling 18-yd. (16.5 m) John Deere scrapers, which are stripping the top soil and relaying it. Additionally, crews are using Caterpillar graders and K 621 front-end loaders on site.

“We’ll be doing shell rock roads, drainage pipes, and water control structures six days a week, ten hours a day when possible, utilizing 15 to 18 people,” Bennett noted. “No part of the construction seems to faze the animals.”

Jennie Tyrrell, project manager of R K Davis Construction, said this project is different than many she’s worked on before.

“When constructing, we have to take in consideration the strength of the chimps. It’s complex form and block work with the housing.”

R K Davis Construction began work in January and anticipates completion of phase two in October

“We hope to start phase three this coming June, and probably complete it next March,” she said.

The company is responsible for constructing 122,300- sq.-ft. (213.7 sq m) block and solid concrete structures enforced with rebar.

“Our $5-million contract is to build the buildings only,” Tyrrel noted. “ There will also be a central well system and a water treatment plant on site.”

Bennett built the original pods some three years ago.

When construction is finished, visitors will be welcomed to view the animals by remote camera.

Constructing a

Good Cause

The chimps that will be living at the sanctuary are descendants of the old Air Force space program and former victims of biomedical experiments conducted at the infamous Coulston Foundation in New Mexico.

Many of the primates display aberrant behavior, including self-mutilation. The laboratory, a long-time target of animal rights groups and the USDA’s regulatory stipulations, violated the federal Animal Welfare Act and was negligent in the deaths of ten chimps.

Coulston sold the animals, facility and land to the Center for Captive Chimpanzee Care, and it became a way station called Save the Chimps. Jane Goodall, renowned chimpanzee expert, sits on its board of directors.

On Jan. 15, three adult chimps in their 40s ––┬áTarzan, Tami and Henrietta –– were loaded into a truck that held separate cages. In Florida, the trio would be introduced to a group of nine other chimps that had been sent ahead to form a colony. Thirty chimps are currently there in residence.

Carole Noon, Director of Save the Chimps, noted that this was the first time in many, many years the chimps had left their “dungeons.”

After leaving behind the remaining 200-plus chimpanzees, the three arrived at the organization’s 200-acre site, the world’s largest sanctuary for captive chimpanzees.

Noon said, “I was pretty much on my own intending to grow slowly with twenty chimps. We suddenly grew ten-fold overnight.”

The dream of constructing a natural environment for the primates was quickly becoming reality.

There is mutual admiration between Noon, R K Davis and Bennett.

“When I got into this everybody told me it would be the worst process I would ever be involved with,” Noon said. “ I have never even built a treehouse. However, this construction has been absolutely painless.”

In the near future, Noon will have her own house constructed on the premises.