Reciprocal Reassurance

If you are a regular blog reader then you know that chimpanzees are very social critters just like humans. Their relationships with each other are very strong, and as caregivers we spend a lot of time building relationships with the chimpanzees in order to facilitate a healthy social environment for them. One thing friends do for each other both in the chimpanzee world and in the human world is support one another – we offer help as well as seek help. Sometimes you need someone to just let you know “it’s going to be ok.” 

The concept of reassurance encompasses many different behaviors in chimpanzees – but essentially chimpanzees communicate using different gestures, facial expressions, or other nonverbal behavior when they need reassurance from someone else. This can happen after an altercation, perhaps a misunderstanding or disagreement about something, but it can also happen in really any high arousal situation. In conflict settings, requesting reassurance might be asking something like, “are you with me on this?” and post-conflict reassurance might communicate “everything’s all right now.” 
 At CHCI asking for reassurance happens frequently in non-conflict circumstances, for instance if there’s some delicious food being prepared or a party getting assembled, this can be almost overwhelmingly exciting. In these cases the chimpanzees will often approach one another for reassurance by extending their arm toward another chimpanzee and touching, placing their mouth on the body of another chimpanzee (which we call an “open mouth kiss”), and breathy panting. Sometimes they will want reassurance from their human friends, too. They will often approach the fencing, stick their lips out for a kiss (sometimes while breathy panting) and often will put their fingers through the fencing to contact our wrists. 
This simple touch or kiss to the back of our wrist really does wonders for bringing calm to a situation. Chimpanzees have natural communicative behaviors that are truly remarkable, just as much as the impressive use of ASL signs we see them using to communicate as well. 
Now that I’ve explained chimpanzee reassurance a bit, I’d like to share a story. Yesterday I defended my thesis that I have spent a couple years working on, and it was a pretty exciting morning – I was full of nerves but was doing my best to keep my game face on. When I got to the building, everyone was putting out enrichment for a really exciting party that we were throwing for the chimpanzees. As I entered the chimpanzee area, I noticed that Tatu was pilo erect (all her hair was standing up – a sign of excitement) and upon seeing me stuck her lips out of the fencing, asking for reassurance. I approached Tatu and she started breathy panting while kissing my wrist. I breathy panted with her until she withdrew. Immediately Loulis took her place and gave me a kiss on the wrist as well, also accompanied by a breathy pant. Meanwhile Dar was nearby making attention-getting sounds. When Loulis withdrew from me, I approached Dar who asked for kiss as well. After giving reassurance to all three chimpanzees I realized that most of my nerves had completely disappeared. 
 As it turns out, that morning’s reassurance worked both ways – I was comforting them during their overwhelming excitement for a party, and they were making me feel like “it will all be ok” about my upcoming thesis defense. 
 Later I found out that Dar was checking up on the activity in the classroom during my defense.

About Debbie Metzler

Debbie began working with chimpanzees in 2005 while she earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Central Washington University. She continued on to earn a master's degree in primate behavior, and after graduation joined the adjunct faculty in the primate behavior department. Debbie is an experienced coordinator for education, outreach, and advocacy programs. Currently she is working toward putting an end to the exploitation of non-human apes everywhere.
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