With chimpanzees being our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA, it can be tempting to treat them like hairy humans when we encounter them at the zoo. However, while chimps may walk on two legs and use tools like us, they are still wild animals that can be unpredictable and dangerous. An important thing to remember with chimpanzees is to avoid prolonged eye contact, as this is seen as a sign of aggression in their world. In this article, we’ll look at why you shouldn’t look a chimp in the eye, the risks involved, and other tips for safely viewing our primate cousins.
Why Chimps View Staring as Aggressive
In the wild, prolonged eye contact between chimpanzees is considered an act of hostility and a challenge. Staring directly at another chimpanzee suggests you are sizing them up for a potential physical confrontation. Maintaining eye contact can lead to attacks as it is seen as highly disrespectful behavior among chimp communities. Even subtler eye movements like glancing up and down at a chimp can elicit aggressive responses as they pick up on the smallest cues of dominance and submission through eye gaze.
Staring behavior has roots in assessing strength and weakness. In the chimp world, submitting to the stare of a more dominant individual is a way to avoid violence. Defiantly returning the stare risks altercation. Prolonged eye contact is one of the ways chimps establish hierarchy within their complex social structures. Anthropologist Jane Goodall recorded many examples of fights breaking out among chimps after staring stand-offs during her decades of close observation at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.
Dangers of Eye Contact with Captive Chimps
While simply looking a chimp briefly in the eye is unlikely to cause them to attack, prolonged eye contact can trigger aggressive behaviors in captive chimps directed at nearby humans. There are unfortunately many tragic stories of people who stared at chimps in zoos or private collections and ultimately paid the price with serious injuries or even death after the chimps became enraged and attacked them brutally.
One example is the 2009 case of a Connecticut woman named Charla Nash who was violently mauled by a friend’s 200-pound chimpanzee named Travis after it attacked her. The chimp ripped off Nash’s face and hands in the 12-minute attack, leaving her permanently disfigured and disabled. Many experts believe prolonged eye contact initiated the aggression that led to the brutal attack. With captive chimps, returning their stare can quickly lead them to charge the glass or fence that separates you, a nerve-wracking experience at minimum.
Safety Precautions When Viewing Captive Chimps
When you visit chimps at a zoo or animal sanctuary, follow these tips to avoid inadvertently triggering aggressive behaviors through eye contact:
- Avoid prolonged staring into their eyes, even if they engage you in eye contact first.
- Keep eye gaze brief if you make direct eye contact and avert your eyes and look down and away.
- Don’t stand close to their enclosure staring in for too long.
- Avoid sudden movements or excessive gestures and noise which can also be seen as aggressive.
- If they charge the glass after eye contact, move back calmly until they retreat.
|Type of Eye Contact||Chimp’s Typical Reaction|
|Brief eye glance||Curious look|
|Prolonged stare||Sign of aggression, charging|
|Looking down and away||Non-threatening, avoids conflict|
Remember, chimps don’t understand humans the same way they understand other chimps. But their instincts often misinterpret direct stares as challenging behavior that requires a show of dominance. By avoiding prolonging eye contact, you can enjoy observing these amazing primates safely.
Is It Okay to Briefly Look a Chimp in the Eye?
While you don’t want to have a full staring contest with a chimpanzee, it’s generally fine to make some calm, brief eye contact. Looking a chimp briefly in the eye can help establish a connection and show them you are not a threat. Just be sure not to prolong the eye gaze.
Primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall said she would always look a wild chimp briefly in the eye then look away, repeating this to help the chimps become comfortable with her presence. She recommends this technique when encountering captive chimps as well, as it acclimates them to your presence.
So go ahead and make some friendly eye contact with chimps for a few moments if you get the chance. Just remember not to stare in a challenging way, and be ready to avert your eyes quickly before they get irritated. Watch their behaviors and reactions closely to guide your interactions.
Tips for Brief Eye Contact with Chimps
- Make eye contact for only 2-3 seconds at a time.
- Use a soft gaze, not an intense stare.
- Slowly blink your eyes while looking at them.
- Smile slightly to appear non-threatening.
- Look down and away after a few moments of eye contact.
- Repeat brief eye contact intermittently.
Signs a Chimp Is Becoming Aggressive
While you want to avoid provoking aggression with prolonged staring, it’s also important to recognize the signs a chimpanzee is getting upset with you. Here are behaviors to watch for:
- Stiff body language – Their body tenses up and they stand very erect and stiff.
- Bristled hair – The hair on their body and head stands up to appear larger and more threatening.
- Baring teeth – They flash their teeth at you in warning.
- Rocking/swaying – They rock or sway back and forth in a threatening manner while staring.
- Charging – They rush aggressively toward the glass/fence separating you.
- Pounding and slapping – They pound the ground with hands/feet or slap walls to intimidate.
- Screeching – High pitched, angry vocal outbursts show they are agitated.
Paying attention to these types of behaviors and ceasing eye contact or backing away when you observe them can prevent further provoking an already irritated chimpanzee.
How Chimps Use Eye Contact with Each Other
To understand why staring provokes chimpanzees, it helps to know how chimps use eye contact and gaze with each other in the wild:
- Prolonged eye contact is used to establish dominance and intimidate rivals.
- Staring down or avoiding the stare of more dominant chimps shows submission.
- Brief eye contact and looks are used to solicit grooming and to signal a desire to copulate.
- Infants use eye gaze to get their mother’s attention and draw her close.
- Eye gaze is avoided with superiors and looked down upon as a sign of respect.
- Direct playful eye contact is made to initiate play.
As we can see, stare-downs are generally displays of aggression for chimpanzees, while brief, friendly eye gazes foster positive social interactions. They use intricate gaze behaviors constantly throughout the day to communicate with each other and reinforce social bonds and hierarchy. Researchers recognize over 30 different facial/eye expressions in chimps!
Examples of Chimp Eye Contact Communications
|Chimp Eye Contact Behavior||Meaning|
|Prolonged stare at rival||Challenge over status/hierarchy|
|Brief eye flick at superior||Submissive gesture of respect|
|Soft gaze while embracing||Social bonding|
|Playful eye sparkle||Invitation to play|
|Pleading eyes at mother||Get attention/comfort|
Special Considerations for Baby Chimps
When viewing infant chimpanzees, prolonged eye contact is generally not recommended as it can cause the mother to become protective and aggressive if she perceives your interest in her baby as threatening. However, since baby chimps are extremely cute, you may find it hard to resist engaging them with eye contact!
If you do lock eyes with a baby chimp, the main thing is to keep the contact very brief, smile warmly, and avert your gaze back to the mother quickly so she understands you are not challenging her for her adorable little one. Resist the urge to ooh, aahh, and coo at the baby to avoid attracting too much uneasy attention from the mother.
Tips for Eye Contact with Baby Chimps
- Keep eye contact extremely brief, just 1-2 seconds.
- Smile warmly and pull your eyes away from the baby quickly.
- Avoid excessive excitement over the baby.
- Pay attention to the mother’s reaction.
- If she seems aggravated, cease eye contact with her baby.
With some restraint and respect for chimpanzee behavior, you can safely enjoy observing baby chimps and their mothers in zoos or sanctuaries. Just be sure to follow the same guidelines as with adult chimps and avoid prolonged engagement through eye contact that could be misinterpreted as threatening interest in their vulnerable little ones.
In summary, while we may feel an instinct to connect through eye contact with our chimpanzee cousins, prolonged staring can be dangerous as it is viewed as aggressive behavior by chimps. Brief, calm eye contact can help establish a friendly connection and show them you are not a threat. But be ready to avert your eyes after a few seconds to avoid triggering an angry reaction. Pay close attention to a chimp’s body language and reactions to your eye gaze to adjust your behavior accordingly. By understanding chimpanzee perspectives on eye contact, we can marvel at their similarities to humans while still respecting the boundaries of these powerful wild animals when observing them in captivity.