Gorilla that uses sign language to communicate with humans dies in California

Koko the gorilla and her caretaker, Penny Patterson
Koko the gorilla and her caretaker, Penny Patterson

Koko, a beloved gorilla that learned to communicate with humans and then stole their hearts, has died.

The Gorilla Foundation said the 46-year-old celebrity ape — a western lowland gorilla — died in her sleep earlier this week at the organization’s preserve in Northern California. The Gorilla Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to study and protect great apes, said in a statement that Koko will be most remembered “as the primary ambassador for her endangered species.”

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the statement said. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

The gorilla was born at the San Francisco Zoo on Independence Day in 1971, according to the Gorilla Foundation, and named Hanabi-ko, which means “fireworks child” in Japanese, though she was mainly known by her nickname, Koko.

It was in San Francisco where the newborn gorilla met a budding animal psychologist, Francine “Penny” Patterson. By the next year, Patterson had started teaching the animal an adapted version of American Sign Language, which she dubbed “Gorilla Sign Language,” or GSL. Video footage from that time shows Patterson playing games with the young gorilla and trying to teach her a new way to communicate.

It grew into a decades-long relationship that revealed a deeper side of Koko and her apparent ability to understand, although some experts have questioned Patterson’s methods and Koko’s abilities. As Slate reported four years ago: “In the past few decades there has been a spirited debate about whether apes are using language in the same way humans do.”

In 1980, according to Slate, Herbert Terrace, a psychologist who worked with a chimpanzee in a language study at Columbia University, expressed skepticism about apes’ way with words.

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In any case, Koko was a unique ape that connected not only with humans but also with other animals.

She loved baby dolls. And kittens.

And she built relationships with Mister Rogers, Betty White and Robin Williams.

When Williams died in 2014, the Gorilla Foundation said that Koko took it hard.

After Patterson told Koko that Williams had died, the foundation said, “Koko was quiet and looked very thoughtful.” Later, the organization said, “Koko became very somber, with her head bowed and her lip quivering.”

In its 2014 article on apes, Slate further questioned whether Koko really understood the tragedy, noting: “Was Koko really mourning Robin Williams? How much are we projecting ourselves onto her and what are we reading into her behaviors? Animals perceive the emotions of the humans around them, and the anecdotes in the release could easily be evidence that Koko was responding to the sadness she sensed in her human caregivers.”

Following Koko’s death this week, the Gorilla Foundation said that she leaves a legacy.

“Koko’s capacity for language and empathy has opened the minds and hearts of millions,” the statement read. “She has been featured in multiple documentaries and appeared on the cover of National Geographic twice. The first cover, in October of 1978, featured a photograph Koko had taken of herself in a mirror. The second issue, in January of 1985, included the story of Koko and her kitten, All Ball. Following the article, the book Koko’s Kitten was published and continues to be used in elementary schools worldwide.

“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.”

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