Two squirrel monkeys at Paignton Zoo have just moved into a tropical forest – indoors. Wobbly branches, damp floors and free-ranging insects may not your idea of domestic bliss, but for the squirrels, it’s perfect.

Their new enclosure has been designed with great attention to detail so that it closely resembles their forest home, providing them with a natural, stimulating environment and encouraging natural behaviours. 

The enclosure features moist ground, made of a combination of coir substrate including coconut husk as it holds water and doesn’t biodegrade, soil and gravel for drainage under the plants. Rotten logs and dead leaves have been added - natural bacteria will break them down over time, creating a more self-sufficient environment and simulating the monkeys’ natural habitat in the tropical forests of Central and South America. This substrate also provides hiding places for the live insects the squirrel monkeys eat, encouraging them to forage and work for their food.

Squirrel monkeys like to spend most of their time in the canopy, so the keepers have incorporated branching in the enclosure design. Some of this is fixed and secure, offering places that feel safe to rest, while other pieces are loose, providing natural movement when they are climbed on, as the monkeys would find in the forest. This helps to exercise the squirrel monkeys’ muscles and makes them work on their balance.

Mammal Keeper Chris Peterson explains: “A closer natural environment provides natural enrichment and natural behaviours, enabling us to improve husbandry techniques for the species.”


One of the biggest challenges keepers and gardeners face with enclosure design and maintenance is plants being destroyed by animals, so perching areas have been provided away from the plants to minimise damage. While the plants in the enclosure are not the species that would be found in their natural habitat, they are hardy, non-toxic and well suited for the squirrel monkeys’ needs. “It’s not just about aesthetics, the plants do look good but they are enriching on both a sensory and physical level.”

The fluorescent lighting is mainly for the benefit of the plants; while the lighting will produce some heat, Monkey Heights has a built in heating system, so no dedicated heat lamps are required. The temperature, combined with the moisture in the substrate, creates a warm and humid environment which stops the squirrel monkeys’ skin from drying out and is perfect for the plants, too. 

Chris again: “The whole enclosure brings the outdoors indoors. It’s a new design for us and there will be some trial and error, but we will be monitoring how well it all works.”

There is still work to be done on the enclosure – there’s an outdoor area that will be an extension to the indoor enclosure and there are plans to grow Ficus (fig) plants up the walls for a more foresty effect. “What you give, you get back tenfold - and I want to pass that on to future generations of keepers,” Chris explains.

The two male squirrel monkeys, Carlos and Antonio, have settled in well to their new mini jungle and can be seen in Monkey Heights.


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