Koko was an incredible western lowland gorilla which had the ability to display human-like behavior and communicate in American Sign Language. Koko very recently died at age 46. Koko’s life was more important than anyone ever thought. Read on to find out why:
Koko is arguably the most significant animal to date in recent years. She was “the gorilla that understands 2,000 words and can sign 1,000 of them.” She made an everlasting impact on the scientific community and humanity. Her life led to new revelations about animal empathy and communication.
Koko’s full name was Hanabi-ko which is Japanese for “fireworks child.” Her name comes from her birthdate which is actually on American independence day: July 4. She was born in 1971 and since a young age she was called “Koko.”
Koko Meets Penny Patterson
Koko was born on July 4th at the San Fransisco Zoo. When she was 1 she was loaned to a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at Stanford University named Francine “Penny” Patterson. Penny Patterson was developing an interesting argument that animals were a little more like humans than everyone else thought.
Animals Are Like Humans?
Over the course of human history, both scientists and philosophers have argued about the linguistic abilities and emotional intelligence of animals. Some believe animals have emotions, inner thoughts, and communication abilities similar to humans. Others believe there is no comparison, and humans are unique because they are able to use a working language to communicate and express themselves.
Penny Patterson wanted to examine this and see if animals could express themselves using language. She first began working with Koko in 1972. Her first idea was to try to teach Koko American Sign Language or ASL.
Learning American Sign Language
Koko was only on loan at first to Penny Patterson for a short study on interspecies communication. After successfully teaching Koko some American Sign Language, she consulted fellow researcher, Ronald Cohn. The two decided to start a non-profit organization which aimed to officially adopt Koko. They co-founded The Gorilla Foundation to officially support the adoption and research efforts about the amazing gorilla.
The team of Patterson and Cohn were successful! Together they raised $12,000 to officially adopt Koko. After the adoption, they decided to move Koko to the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1979 for further research.
A Great Leap Forward
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The fact Penny Patterson was able to even teach Koko some American Sign Language is remarkable and unprecedented! Just by achieving this, Patterson helped prove apes can have linguistic abilities similar to young children. A researcher at York University named Anne Russon stated that teaching Koko sign language, as opposed to solely verbal communication, was a “great leap forward.”
Koko was already very clearly on her way to becoming the most intelligent ape in history! With the help of Patterson, she learned more than 1,000 words in sign language and came to understand over 2,000 words spoken to her in English! Amazing!
Verbal And Communication Abilities
Koko’s language acquisition was a process. To start, Koko learned simple nouns like toy, tree, apple, and cookie. She then learned hundreds of simple nouns impressing everyone. She progressed to learning and using verbs. Researchers believe she developed mood and emotional communication abilities similar to humans!
Koko Understood Meaning Behind Words
Koko was displaying evidence that she had the ability to communicate. She began to build short sentences. One example is she said to Patterson, “You key there me cookie.” She was requesting Patterson to open the cabinet and bring her a snack. She was not only communicating, but she was proving that she understood the meaning behind her communication!
Patterson & Koko
In a recent interview, Penny Patterson stated, “She taught me more than I taught her, for sure.” She continued, “She had opportunities to show her brilliance and that’s what we saw. We saw a person, really. She had all the attributes of a person and then some.”
Super Smart Gorilla
Moreover, Barbara King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary stated, “Because she was smart enough to comprehend and use aspects of our language, Koko could show us what all great apes are capable of: reasoning about their world, and loving and grieving the other beings to whom they become attached.”
Rise To Fame
Koko pretty quickly became an international celebrity and the most recognized animal in the world! How could she not? She was the only animal in history with a vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and the ability to understand 2,000 words of spoken English!
Western lowland gorillas are considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conversation and Nature. Koko displayed language abilities, and that she had emotions similar to humans. She was also displaying evidence of a funny and mischievous personality!
Koko was the most famous western lowland gorilla in history! Her fame was propelled with the help of National Geographic magazine. They featured Koko on the cover twice making her a huge celebrity! She was becoming a pop culture phenomena.
First Animal Selfie Ever??
This photo is of the first cover for National Geographic magazine. Koko is seen taking a picture of herself in the mirror. This could be the first animal selfie ever! The picture was featured as the cover photo in the October 1978 issue.
She Wanted A Pet Kitty!
Researchers at The Gorilla Foundation stated Koko was asking for a pet cat for Christmas in 1983! She was given a stuffed animal but clearly was less than pleased. She wouldn’t play with it and actually signaled “sad” in sign language! She really wanted the real thing for Christmas!
A Kitten Of Her Own
On Koko’s birthday in 1984, she was allowed to choose a kitten from a litter of abandoned kittens to keep as her own. She chose a gray kitten and named him “All Ball.” Koko took care of All Ball like it was her own offspring!
The Gorilla Foundation stated Koko nursed All Ball and displayed love towards her. Moreover, they said Koko nurtured All Ball and taught her survival skills.
2nd Nat Geo Cover
Koko’s relationship with All Ball was the inspiration behind the second National Geographic feature in January of 1985. Koko was seen on the cover caring for her pet kitty. The photo is great and was taken by none other than Ronald Cohn.
She Displayed Grief
Sadly in 1984, All Ball died. She escaped from Koko’s cage and was struck by a car. Petterson stated Koko signed “Bad, sad, bad” and “Frown, cry, frown, sad” in response to the event. Patterson also stated Koko made sounds similar to humans while they are weeping.
Koko, The Gorilla Who Loved Cats
The next year, in 1985, Koko was allowed to pick two new kittens. She picked two new friends and named them “Lipstick” and “Smoky.” She sure was one cat loving gorilla!
Besides the National Geographic features, Koko appeared in several documentaries and had many celebrity friends! Her most famous friend was definitely Robin Williams. The two recorded a video playing together which went viral back in 2001. She infamously played with Robin Williams in the cutest possible way and even tried on his glasses!
Robin Williams Death Impacted Her
Robin Williams died in 2014, and Koko took it pretty hard. The two were friends for about 13 years. The Gorilla Foundation said Koko was aware of what happened and sad when she was informed of his death.
Her Impact Is Huge
So Koko used language, displayed emotions, cared for her kitten, had famous friends and now displayed grief! The Gorilla Foundation said, “Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world.”
Koko Reported Dead At 46
Unfortunately, Koko very recently died. She died in her sleep on June 19, 2018. She was 46 years old. She outlived most others in her species by 10-15 years.
Buried Next To Her BFF
Koko was laid to rest at a grave site in Woodside, California. She was buried alongside Michael, another western lowland gorilla which came lived with Koko. The two were close friends according to researchers. Patterson said, “They were great playmates and companions. They were good together, and she loved him so much.” She also stated recently, “It just feels right to have them close.”
Resting In Peace
Penny Patterson stated in a recent interview Koko looked “peaceful” when she died, but researchers were still understanding the cause of death. In an interview with ABC news, Patterson said, “We’re still trying to understand what the cause was.” She went on to say, “Many gorillas have a heart condition, cardiomyopathy, and she had it, but it was apparently a mild case and was being treated for that. That’s one possibility.”
Koko’s Legacy Will Live On
The Gorilla Foundation issued a statement that it “will continue to honor Koko’s legacy and advance our mission” by studying sign language in great apes and pursuing conservation projects in Africa and around the world. Despite her recent death, Koko’s legacy and impact on science and philosophy will live on forever.