The animal kingdom comprises many animals, some of which are more aggressive than others. When thinking about whether chimpanzees are dangerous, context is an important factor. For instance, will a lone chimp attack a tourist while on an African hiking trail? Probably not, the sight of a hairless bipedal ape would likely scare it off.
However, are chimps in captivity known to attack humans? Yes. According to the Scientific American, chimpanzees are known to inflict life-threatening injuries, leading to many questions about these creatures’ dispositions.
Chimpanzees Are Strong and Territorial
Chimpanzees share 98.8 percent of human DNA, making them our closest relatives. However, that 1.2 percent is a huge difference. For instance, chimpanzees are 1.35 times stronger than humans, and this would give them an incredible advantage in hand-to-hand combat.
What’s more, chimps are extremely territorial, waging wars between neighboring troops for resources, mates, and square footage. Royal Society Publishing reports that chimps are one of the most territorial apes; the more males in a troop, the higher tensions can arise.
What Would Make a Chimpanzee Dangerous?
At first glance, a hunched-over chimpanzee doesn’t look like much. But there’s more to these primates than what meets the eye. In a situation that would spark a chimp’s rage, it could:
- Inflict deep bites. The force of an animal’s bite is measured in pounds per square inch (PSI). Cleveland Clinic notes that a person’s bite has 162 PSI. A chimp’s is 1,300 PSI.
- Cause disfiguring injuries. Fun fact: Both chimps and humans have 32 teeth. Still, when combined with chimps’ sharp teeth and their PSI, a single bite can cause extensive tissue damage, resulting in blood loss and scarring.
- Call on its allies. Chimps live in troops of about 25 to 80 members, relying on complex relationships and hierarchies. When a chimp zeroes in on a threat, other chimps may join in the fray.
- Rely on its strength. Side-by-side, a chimp and a human could both lift about 250 pounds with proper training. During a conflict, a chimp may kick, hit, stomp, and pull victims’ hair, hoping to win the fight with brute force alone.
Even if a human is able to walk away from a dangerous chimpanzee with nothing but a few puncture wounds, their troubles may have just begun. That’s because chimps carry many bacteria in their mouths that humans don’t, increasing the risk of infection following a bite or attack.
Chimpanzees Can Use Weapons
Chimpanzees have large brains that allow for advanced cognitive processing and problem-solving skills. For instance, many apes use sticks to eat ants and rocks to smash nuts open. But in 2007, National Geographic reported something startling: chimps were starting to use weapons to hunt mammals.
They were able to create spears by taking a branch and chewing the end into a sharpened point. Then, they jabbed the spear into the hollow parts of a tree, hoping to catch bush babies. One chimp succeeded!
Some chimps use projectile weapons when engaging in turf wars with neighboring troops. Given their muscle strength and accuracy, nobody would want to be on the other end of a flying rock.
Have Chimpanzees Ever Attacked People?
Chimpanzees have attacked people, with many incidents happening in rural Uganda. Yet, one of the most infamous attacks happened on American soil in Connecticut. In 2009, a 14-year-old chimpanzee named Travis attacked his owner’s friend, inflicting disfiguring facial injuries.
It’s worth noting, however, that Travis’s unprecedented attack had some unique differences from an attack that would happen in the wild. For example, Travis was administered Xanax the morning of the attack by his owners. Animal behaviorists suggest that the drug may have caused mind-altering effects. Some theorize that he hallucinated while on Xanax, prompting the gruesome attack.
How Can I Stay Safe Around Chimpanzees?
Chances are, unless you’re reading this from western or central Africa, you won’t have to face an unexpected chimpanzee encounter. Still, it may offer some peace of mind knowing what to do if one happens. When face-to-face with a chimpanzee, one should:
- Heed warning signs. Some zoos keep chimpanzees behind chain-link fences. A word of advice: don’t slip your fingers into the enclosure, no matter how tempting. It would take a fraction of a second for a chimpanzee to mistake your finger as a snack, and…yeah.
- Avoid showing your teeth. Chimpanzees view barred teeth as a sign of aggression. While they make faces similar to smiles, they’re actually saying, “Hey, I could bite you if I wanted.”
- Don’t feed them. Nobody except trained professionals should feed chimpanzees. Slipping a piece of fruit into the enclosure risks their health and your safety.
Most Apes Are Aggressive––With One Exception
Chimpanzees, gorillas, and other large apes share many of the same traits people have in terms of relationships, familial ties, and cognitive processing. They also share the same trait that mankind does: aggression. However, there’s one ape that has a reputation for keeping to itself and refraining from uncalled-for violence.
There’s a reason why the Malay word orangutan means “person of the forest.” These long-haired orange primates are highly intelligent, preferring to live in solitude than in large troops. Male orangutans live alone, while female orangutans may mother babies and raise them for nine years at a time.
Per Orangutan Foundation International, males only fight in the presence of sexually receptive females, with fights ranging from a few minutes to a few hours. A female orangutan may go her entire life without ever engaging in combat or threatening another ape.
Many scientists believe that chimps and humans aren’t that different, and they’re both equally dangerous. However, given the PSI of a chimp’s bite, compared with its above-human strength, they’re not to be trifled with.