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Tag Archive: Koko the gorilla


Review by C.J. Bunce

What can you say about Mr. Rogers that you didn’t learn from his more than three decades on television?  Plenty, as you’ll find in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, a new work of non-fiction by Maxwell King that we previewed earlier at borg here.  If you could meet any creator of the past fifty years, it would be difficult to find anyone as sincere and genuine as television’s Mr.  Rogers.  Maybe Jim Henson?  Bob Ross?  Mr. Rogers was a man whose private life was every bit as real as his persona on television, according to hundreds of people who knew him that were interviewed for King’s new book.

The fear for a reader of the book is like any behind-the-scenes peek at a beloved film or television series: As with learning the magician’s secrets or seeing a Muppet with a hand stuffed up its back, the man that became Mr. Rogers has his flaws, and his several TV projects, books, speeches, and other works reveals in many ways and from many avenues that he really was just a man.  So for some, there’s too much to see here.  Yet readers will not be surprised that no matter who was asked and prodded, there were no skeletons in his closet to reveal–King even notes the categorical rejection of so many Internet myths that have arisen about him since his death in 2003.  All, of course, are false.  What you saw was what you got: an educated thinker who chose to help people with his singular career path.

Yet was he really just a man?  Would any other person have so many incredible encounters?  An autistic child visited his set with his family, only to speak for the very first time when Mr. Rogers addressed the child directly through the famous puppets King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday, which the boy had watched for years on TV at his home?  Or when Koko the gorilla, who passed away earlier this year, visited him, she took him into her arms.  Koko was a long-time fan of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and when they met the two spoke to each other in American Sign Language and took photographs of each other.  Before the advent of the literal movie blockbuster, Mr. Rogers had thousands of children and their parents lined up around city blocks for a chance to meet him in person.  Clearly, if Mr. Rogers was just a man, he was like no other before or since.

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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.

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