Koko: The Gorilla That Learned Sign Language To Communicate With Us
June 21, 2018|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
One of the most impressive cases of interspecies communication, Koko the gorilla, passed away yesterday at the age of 46.
I have a kind of irrational (though not entirely) fear of gorillas. I’ve had it since I was about six years old, after seeing one at the zoo. I don’t know what it was, but from that moment to this day, whenever I even see images of gorillas, I tend to feel anxiety and fear. I know it’s very unlikely that I'll ever face a wild gorilla that could harm me, but my fear doesn’t really relate to dying or being hurt by one of these creatures, it's a matter of vulnerability and intimidation.
Of course, when I was six, I couldn't really understand and analyze what was happening until some years later, when I saw a documentary of the famous Koko and her impressive ability to communicate through sign language. It was that closeness and recognition of me in her gestures, expressions, and movements that overwhelmed me so much; they’re truly our closest biological relatives, and it’s impressive to see the likeness and shared abilities we have. But yesterday, that same gorilla that gave an answer to that strange emotion, passed away at age 46. Here’s a bit of her story and her amazing contributions to science.
Koko was born on July 4th, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo and named Hanabi-ko (Japanese for “fireworks child”) due to the significance of the day of her birth. Since she was just one year old, Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, an American animal psychologist, chose the gorilla for a special project in which she started teaching her sign language. Patterson remained Koko's main trainer throughout all of her life. Soon, after the project began, Koko proved that the communication between species wasn’t as impossible as many thought; the gorilla was able to understand and use more than 1,000 different signs, besides understanding temporal displacement of events, rhyming words, and even recognizing herself in front of a mirror, which most animals and even primates aren’t capable of.
Perhaps what made Koko so impressive and what made her story connect with people was the fact that, for the first time, humans were able to understand and see the different set of emotions that animals, in this case, gorillas, have. One of these examples was seen on Christmas 1983, when she asked her keepers for a cat. They decided to give her a stuffed one, which wasn’t really what Koko was asking for, and she even told them she was sad. For her next birthday, they decided they would make her wish come true and allowed her to pick the kitten she wanted to adopt; she even named it “All Ball.” The love and connection Koko created with her new pet amazed her caretakers and researchers, since, for the first time, they managed to really confirm that what she was communicating was what she really wanted. Sadly, All Ball died six months later, and Koko’s reaction was as impressive as always. She got depressed and seemed to understand perfectly what was going on, by talking to her keepers.
Over the years, Koko had more pets she loved and cared for, and more importantly, she continued learning and developing her communication skills. Perhaps one of the highlights her life, or better said, what stole the hearts of people around the world was the day she found a great friend in beloved author Robin Williams in 2001. The actor visited the Gorilla Foundation in California, and Koko immediately recognized him from a movie she had seen in one of her tests. They laughed, hugged, made funny faces, and played with each other. Patterson even said that when Koko learned the sad news of Williams’ death, she “became extremely sad.”
Koko stole the hearts of people around the world, but more importantly helped us see that we’re not the superior species that we thought. Besides that, she never stopped learning; Koko learned how to play the recorder in 2012, proving she had a very acute mental dexterity and gorillas’ abilities to control their breathing. Without a doubt, Koko made a huge contribution to the study of primates and animal cognitive skills, and as the Gorilla Foundation expressed in a statement, her impact “will continue to shape the world.”
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