Koko the Gorilla Born, Learns Sign Language

Koko the Gorilla Born, Learns Sign Language

On this day in 1971, Koko the sign-language gorilla was born. The day also commemorates the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom on 4 July 1776. Independence Day is often celebrated in the US with spectacular fireworks displays, and Koko’s name is actually an abbreviation of “Hanabiko,” the Japanese word for “fireworks child.” According to her long-term trainer, Francine Patterson, this remarkable gorilla can understand over 1,000 signs of American Sign Language and around 2,000 words of spoken English. Her extraordinary life has also involved online chats and video dating, pet cats and a malevolent parrot, not to mention reported cases of sexual harassment.

Koko was born at San Francisco Zoo but lives in Woodside, California. She can communicate through sign language, and although she is rarely able to form coherent sentences, she has invented her own compound words; for instance, combining “finger” and “bracelet” to describe a ring. On 12 April 1998, in the early days of home broadband, America Online hosted an online chat with Koko, and she impressed her virtual audience by asking Patterson for a sweet with the words, “lips fake candy give me.”

In order to encourage Koko to mate, she was shown video of various male Western Gorillas, and this gorilla video dating initiative led to her taking a lover called Ndume. Although the two are yet to mate, there are still hopes that one day they will, and that she will then teach signing to her offspring. She used to live with a gorilla called Michael—though they treated each other as siblings, rather than as romantic interests—and he also understood around 600 signs. According to his trainers, Michael had experienced the trauma of seeing his mother and father murdered by poachers, and it is thought that he was often trying to explain this event; sadly, he could never express it clearly.

Koko is one of the only animals known to have kept pets. In the summer of 1984 she asked Patterson for a cat, and chose a tailless grey Manx cat from a litter of abandoned kittens. When he was later run over, she wept and signed, “bad, sad, bad” and “frown, cry, frown, sad.” She also lived with a Green-Winged Macaw for a while but they did not get along; she nicknamed him “devil tooth.”

Finally, three female former employees of the Gorilla Foundation have complained of sexual harassment, saying that the gorilla often asked to see their nipples and Patterson forced them to comply. They claimed that the trainer warned that their jobs would have been endangered if they “did not indulge Koko’s nipple fetish.” Of course, as with everything else, Koko’s attempts at communication might have been completely misinterpreted by us.

Credit: © National Geographic/Getty Images
Caption: Koko shares a drink with the editor of “National Geographic” magazine.