When I’m about to introduce people to chimpanzees for the first time, I usually include something like, “Though this is not true for all nonhuman primate species, it’s okay to make eye contact with chimpanzees. It’s not seen as a direct threat, particularly with chimpanzees who have been raised in captivity around humans.”
And then I use an analogy that I borrowed from J.B. and continue with, “Of course, you don’t want to stare at them. Think of it as riding a bus with strangers – it would be creepy to stare down someone you don’t know, but making eye contact and acknowledging someone else’s gaze is perfectly fine and, in fact, the polite thing to do.”
Interestingly, chimpanzees vary in how much eye contact they choose to make with us.
Honey B does not subscribe to J.B.’s “strangers on a bus” eye contact rule. She stares. She stares deeply. She stares for a long time.
I very much appreciate this about her now, but it was actually a little unnerving at first. I wasn’t sure what kind of data she was gathering as she peered into my eyes, because it did feel like she was collecting information.
Her mom, Missy, however, does quite the opposite. When a human caregiver is lucky enough to be graced by Missy’s focused attention, we generally get her back to groom, with some furtive eye contact once in a while.
If we are super lucky, she sticks her toes out of the mesh for us to touch with the back of our hand, while she looks the other way.
I try to play it cool during these moments, but I am screaming with delight inside when Missy offers me her toes. Beyond it being a huge compliment for Missy to interact with me, her feet are just the best. They are incredibly petite and the nails on her toes are worn on one side from the wear they get as she runs.
I appreciate Missy’s aloofness as much as I do Honey B’s intensity. Despite sharing some DNA, they are each their own unique chimpanzee person with different backgrounds and different personalities. The many differences and personality quirks make working with chimpanzees such a joy.