One of the very first things I learned about chimpanzees when I started working in this field was how they smile. I went to a presentation before visiting the chimps that I eventually worked for at the (now former) CHCI, and they explained that when we were around the chimpanzees we needed to cover our top teeth.
This sounded so strange to me at the time. We tried a “chimpanzee smile” by covering our top teeth and showing our bottom teeth. It felt pretty silly to do, but they explained that a human smile is seen as a threatening expression to chimpanzees. When they are afraid or when they are trying to be intimidating, they will show all their top teeth and do what we call a “fear grimace.”
I was stunned. I knew I had laughed at commercials with “smiling” chimpanzees, gone to movies and even bought birthday cards because they were funny to me. I was upset with the fact that I had contributed to the industry that threatens and abuses chimpanzees in order to get that “funny” expression. I quickly learned that there’s a reason we call it a fear grimace—my first time seeing a chimpanzee conflict was when I truly knew that chimpanzees do not smile with happiness the same way we do.
From that moment on, I decided that I wanted to help educate others about what I had learned that day, and now I am very fortunate to be working not only as a caregiver at CSNW but also the advocacy coordinator for the sanctuary. I am very passionate about helping all of you help them! So in the future, try to avoid buying media that exploits chimpanzees and definitely subscribe to the Eyes on Apes Take Action alerts so you will know when there’s something you can help out with.
Here’s an example of a fear grimace during a conflict from a few years ago. Notice how Annie is showing all of her teeth:
And Foxie then responds in fear as well:
Chimpanzees rely so much on nonverbal behaviors (actually—so do humans, it’s just that we talk so much you don’t always notice the nonverbal stuff) so it’s really important to send social cues to convey what the context is. Since they can’t say “I’m really scared” they use all the nonverbal cues to let everyone around them know. They scream, they show all their teeth, they stand up to look intimidating, sometimes reach out for reassurance, and so on. The very opposite of these behaviors is covering their top teeth, play bowing instead of standing up, and laughing instead of screaming (amongst many other social signals to communicate “I’m being playful!”)
Here’s Burrito demonstrating a perfect playface:
Jamie and Foxie:
Missy and Jody:
Negra and Missy: