Koko, the western lowland gorilla who learned sign language and redrew the lines of communication between human beings and animals, has died. The Gorilla Foundation announced that Koko had died in her sleep early on Tuesday morning. She was 46.
Koko was beloved around the world,and the Gorilla Foundation’s Facebook page quickly filled up with comments from the thousands of people who are mourning the friendly, intelligent gorilla. In fact, Koko has been in the public eye for decades. She’s been written about in children’s books and featured on National Geographic. She’s befriended celebrities, notably Robin Williams. She’s taught the world a lot about animals’ emotions. But what else do we know about Koko?
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Koko’s IQ Was 85 & He Could Sign 1,000 Words
Koko’s thousand-word vocabulary matched that of a 3 year old human child. Koko — her full named is Hanabi-ko, which means “Fireworks Child” in Japanese — was born in the San Francisco zoo on July 4, 1971. Dr. Francine Patterson, an animal trainer, began working with Koko when the gorilla was just a tiny, rather sickly baby.
Koko was intelligent and highly social. She quickly learned how to sign words and, critically, how to combine words to express complex emotions and convey her responses to different situations. Her vocabulary was much larger than that of other non-human primates. Washoe, the first chimpanzee who was taught sign language, learned just 350 words in his life. Nim Chimpsky learned 125 signs but never was able to combine words in the way a human being would.
Koko, on the other hand,was positively chatty and made incredible use of her words. That’s why we know so much about her unique tastes and preferences. She managed to convey to to people that her favorite color was red; that her favorite foods were nuts, tofu, and corn on the cob; and that her favorite book was The Three Little Kittens. Koko also had the brain-power to combine the words she knew in order to describe things that were new to her. For example, the first time she saw a mask she signed “eye hat”; the first time she saw a lighter, she signed “bottle fire.”
2. Koko Was Very Emotional – Especially About Kittens
In 1984, the then-13 year old Koko asked for a kitten for Christmas. Her keepers gave her a stuffed toy cat, which apparently was a huge let-down for the gorilla. She refused to play with the toy and kept signing “sad.” So the next year, Dr. Patterson got Koko a kitten. Koko named the little gray kitten “All Ball” and cared for it lovingly. A few months later, All Ball was hit by a car and Koko was completely miserable. She signed “bad, sad, bad” and “frown, cry, frown” again and again. The children’s book Koko’s Kitten tells the story about Koko’s love for All Ball and is used in schools around the world; it’s taught thousands of childrens about the depth of animal emotions.
Koko had a strong maternal instinct and loved to play with dolls. She carried her “Waterbaby”, a rubber human doll, with her everywhere she went. She had a pretty big collection of dolls who she signed to and tucked gently under her arm.
Kok has had many cats over the years. After “All Ball”, she had an orange cat named “Lips Lipstick”; later, she loved to play wtih a gray kitten named “Smoky”. In 2015, Koko’s trainers got her two new kittens for July 4th. Koko named them “Ms. Gray” and “Ms. Black.” She loved to carry the kittens around on her head and play with them. Koko never had a baby of her own.
3. Koko Counted Robin Williams & Flea Among His Celebrity Friends
Koko met Robin Williams in 2001, when the comedian visited the Gorilla Foundation in California. Apparently the two hit it off right away and were laughing and hugging like old friends. In 2014, Robin Williams passed away. Koko’s trainers were very hesitant to tell her, but Koko overheard Dr. Patterson talking about the death on the telephone. She understood what had happened and was immediately distraught. She lowered her head; her lip quivered. A video of Koko’s tribute went viral, and her fans even wrote to the New York Times to criticize her keepers for telling the gorilla that her friend had died.
Koko also met Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In 2016, Flea and Koko teamed up to make a music video together. Koko had a great time, got very excited about the music, and kissed the fretboard of Flea’s bass again and again. Flea sang the gorilla’s praises, saying, “Koko rocks a bass like it ain’t nothin.”
Over the years, Koko met and befriended many other celebrities. Betty White met Koko in 2004 and became so fond of the 300 pound gorilla that she decided to become a “co-ambassador”, along with Koko, advocating for the rights of Great Apes. And Mr. Rogers, from Mr. Fogers’ Neighborhood, also met Koko. They did a special episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood together. Apparently Koko was a little bit in awe of Mr. Rogers, since she was a huge fan of his TV show. She released a message mourning him upon his death.
4. Koko’s Trainer Penny Patterson Had a ‘Mother-Daughter’ Bond
Koko’s trainer, Dr. Penny Patterson, dedicated her life to taking care of Koko. When Koko was just six months old, she became sick and had to be separated from her mother. Patterson, just 25 at the time, began working with Koko when the gorilla was about one. Since then, Patterson, now 71, has acted like a mother to Koko. Every year, Patterson threw a big birthday party for the gorilla, complete with carefully wrapped presents and a birthday cake with candles. People who met Patterson and Koko described their relationship as very close and compared it to a mother-daughter bond.
Patterson spent a lot of time and energy trying to get Koko pregnant. She introduced her gorilla daughter to a nice young gorilla named Michael, but apparently Koko friendzoned Michael from the beginning. She and Michael got along very well, even painting together, but ultimately she treated him like a brother and showed no interest in mating with him.
Patterson has been criticized for allegedly putting words into Koko’s mouth and overstating the gorilla’s verbal and emotional intelligence. She reportedly relied on a psychic to help care for Koko. And many people criticized her for never allowing Koko to return to the wild, or to interact more naturally with other gorillas. Instead of living like a gorilla, Koko was made to behave as though she were a human toddler — something which made for adorable videos and children’s books, but may not have been what was ultimately best for the animal.
5. Koko’s Memory Is Being Preserved With a Sign Language App & a Charitable Foundation
Thousands of people took to social media on Thursday to mourn Koko. Mourners wished her “Godspeed” and said that their hearts were broken.
Our hearts are broken to learn that Koko @kokotweets the gorilla has passed. She was a truly remarkable and inspirational girl. Now she can be reunited with her beloved cat, All Ball. RIP Koko (1971-2018) pic.twitter.com/p8fK668Cip
— The Moon Pieds (@moonpieds) June 21, 2018
The Gorilla Foundation’s Facebook page quickly filled up with loving messages to Koko. The top comment came from Diane Woback, who said “Koko how lucky we have been to have her on this earth to teach us so much about love, compassion and kindness and so many other wonderful things! Dr. Penny so so sorry for your loss.”
The Gorilla Foundation announced that it would honor Koko’s memory by continuing work on its gorilla sanctuary in Maui. Since 1993, the foundation has been working on plans for a sanctuary in Hawaii. To date, two million dollars have been raised towards the creation of a gorilla sanctuary on 70 acres of land. The foundation is hoping to expand the sanctuary to eventually span 350 acres. The foundation appears to be using Koko’s death as a chance to expand its fundraising appeal. The Foundation also said it would create a sign language app featuring Koko. The app is intended to help children, as well as apes, learn sign language.