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REMEMBERING KOKO— THE GORILLA WHO MADE US TAKE A SECOND LOOK

No matter how fleeing its light, a firework shot among the stars is a fiery bloom that illuminates the darkness. Such is true of Hanabi-ko  (Japanese for”Fireworks child”), a 300-pound western lowlands gorilla who illuminated the unknown and made us take a second look at animal intelligence.  In her 46 years of life, Hanabi-ko (better known as Koko) showed the world that like humans, great apes are complex beings— capable of understanding reason, forming lasting relationships and grieving loss.

Born at the San Francisco Zoo on July 4th, 1971, Koko’s first year of life was challenging from the start. Shortly after birth, Hanabi-ko became critically ill and required care in the zoo’s nursery. While recuperating, Koko met Francine “Penny” Patterson, a 24-year-old doctoral student from Stanford University, who believed that she could teach the recovering gorilla to communicate with caretakers using American sign language.  Though Dr. Patterson initially intended to spend only four years working with Koko, the two stayed in each other’s company for 45 years— a period in which Koko learned to sign over 1,000 words and was able to understand 2,000 spoken words.  Penny, who never had children of her own, often referred to the three gorillas that she devoted her life to as her own children.


Photo of Koko and Dr. Penny Patterson. Courtesy of the Gorilla Foundation and koko.org

Scientists doubt, but the world believes

By 1971, the field of animal communication was in the midst of a revolution. Early attempts at spoken word had been flouted after researchers discovered that anatomical variances between humans and primates make verbal communication near impossible. Without the ability to control their lips and tongues, the reality of primates speaking is near impossible. However, the notion that chimpanzees and gorillas could learn to use coordinated and signed communication had peaked curiosities among researchers. Though perhaps the most famous “talking” primate of the 20th century, Koko was not the first or the last primate to learn to speak through sign language. In fact, according to the Smithsonian, she is among five other primates who communicate through sign. While Koko gained notoriety as the most visible member of her species to comprehend aspects of human language, the scientific community has challenged claims that Koko could understand or communicate human language, suggesting instead that primates simply mirror the hand signals that they observe their caretakers using.

Koko’s kitten

In 1983, Koko warmed hearts around the world as news of her request for a feline companion reached the public. Two years later, Dr. Patterson and a group of researchers at the Gorilla Foundation made Koko’s wish come true. After introducing Koko to a litter of kittens, the primate was told that she could pick one to keep. Such was the beginning of a beautiful, if not short, friendship. Koko named her new grey and white kitten “All Ball”—reportedly because it looked like a small ball— and spent six months nurturing the young cat.  Tragically, All Ball was struck and killed by a vehicle and Koko felt the effects of the loss. In a 1985 article published by the Los Angeles Times, Biologist, Ron Cohn, explained that when Koko found out about All Ball’s death, she began “whimpering — using a distinct hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad.” As footage of a grieving Koko was televised, the world mourned alongside her and the tides of popular belief shifted. Disregarding the doubt of the scientific community, the public sided accepted that Koko had the mental capacity and acuity to communicate and process loss in the same way that humans do.



Though All Ball’s death was traumatic, Koko went on to have many cat companions. In 1990,  Dr. Patterson wrote a children’s book called Koko’s Kitten, which told of the gorilla’s love of her fluffy feline companions. The book skyrocketed into fame and became part of the third-grade reading curriculum in 48 of 50 states in the US.

During her 46 years on earth, Koko joked around with Robin Williams, was featured on two covers of National Geographic and in several PBS documentaries, and spent 45 years with her good friend and caretaker Dr. Penny Patterson. Koko’s intelligence, compassion, and love of kittens remind us of how similar humans and primates can be. Above all, her popularity has brought much-needed attention to the endangered low western lowland gorilla population. In the wild, these intellectual primates call the dense tropical forest of Central West Africa home, yet much of their population has been driven out by lumber companies and poachers. Humans are responsible for the increased extinction rates among large mammals, and as such our role in their well being needs to be examined.

As we say goodbye to Koko— a gorilla who was born into captivity and who never knew the freedom of the wild—we mourn her passing and celebrate her exuberant life.


Copy of Koko on the Cover of National Geographic

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