Just shy of her 47th birthday, Koko the gorilla passed away Tuesday in her sleep at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in Woodside, California, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Koko represents a giant leap in the future of humanity’s relationship with the animal kingdom–she could sign more than a thousand of words of American Sign Language and understood 2,000 words of spoken English, she liked to rhyme words, she could read and paint (painting not only real objects but expressions of her thoughts and emotions, even naming her paintings), and could play a musical instrument–the recorder. She proved years of human scientists wrong, conveying clearly to the world that she had complex thoughts and feelings, sharing compassion, laughter, love, and care for others. And she became famous for all she showed the world, and had well-known friendships with the likes of Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams.
Born on the Fourth of July in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, the western lowland gorilla was named Hanabi-ko, which is Japanese for “fireworks child.” Koko’s ability to communicate with humans via American Sign Language put her twice on the cover of National Geographic, one photo featuring her own selfie (long before selfie was a term). That was thanks to her long-time friend and researcher Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, who began teaching Koko in 1974 when she was three years old. Over the course of her incredible life she proved that gorillas could communicate about objects that weren’t present, had the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, and further, they could convey personal memories. Koko invented new sign-language words for things she didn’t know the word for, she knew the meaning of what she was communicating, and she was even a teacher–another primate learned sign language by watching videos of Koko signing.
Her relationship with her first cat was covered by the mainstream press. For her twelfth Christmas she wanted a pet cat, and for her following birthday she was allowed to select one from a litter of abandoned kittens, which she named All Ball, reflecting the roundness of the cat and her own fondness for alliteration. All Ball died when she sneaked out of her room and was hit by a car that year, and Koko reacted like any human would, with profound grief, which she conveyed in words via signing. Koko adopted several more cats over the next 30 years, adopting two most recently in 2015 that she named Miss Black and Miss Grey. Koko was preceded in death by her friend Michael, her gorilla friend who also could sign, who passed away in 2000. She was living with her friend Ndume, a male gorilla, when she passed away.
Koko was the inspiration for the signing gorilla character Amy in Michael Crichton’s novel Congo. She was the subject of many documentaries, including most recently the BBC’s 2016 show Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks. And she inspired many famous children’s books: Koko’s Kitten, Koko’s Story, Koko-Love!, and Little Beauty. She was featured with Mr. Rogers on his popular show in his 1998 season. Donations may be made to the Gorilla Foundation at their website, koko.org.
We honor and mourn Koko, who was revered and loved by many, and whose life and soul was as important and as significant as any other life that ever traversed this planet. We talk a lot here at borg.com about Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, a dark future between humans and animals the writer envisioned 55 years ago. So long as humans don’t destroy the planet first, thanks to Koko we know a better understanding may be able to be reached and even bigger steps may be possible one day to further the progress of communication on Earth and the path she started.