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Koko, the Gorilla: A Great Communicator and an Extraordinary Teacher

Koko, the Gorilla: A Great Communicator and an Extraordinary Teacher

by Yash Saboo June 29 2018, 4:22 pm Estimated Reading Time: 2 mins, 42 secs

It's not every day that you come across a gorilla who knows sign language. Koko, the celebrated western lowland gorilla understood 2000 words and could sign 1000 of them. The very famous and talented Koko died peacefully in her sleep on June 19, at age 46 — she lived a bit longer than the 30 to 40 years her species typically live in the wild.

Born on July 4, 1971, Koko first came to most people’s attention forty years ago, when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic, taking her own picture in a mirror, and people fell for her talents and her cross-species charm straightaway. When she was a year old, Koko began working with Francine “Penny” Patterson, then a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at Stanford University, who had long believed that there was more to animals—and perhaps a bit less to humans—than we had always believed.

The Independent

Koko's birth name was Hanabi-ko, which translates to “fireworks child” in Japanese, but the nickname Koko quickly caught on. Patterson started teaching Koko sign language at age 1 as part of her studies on the linguistics of lowland gorillas. In 1976, Patterson raised thousands of dollars to adopt Koko and establish The Gorilla Foundation in Redwood City, CA. Koko and Patterson would spend the next 42 years together, and what was dubbed “Project Koko” became the longest research study on apes and language in history.

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

Koko was a phenomenon that could not be ignored. She was a gift to humanity, and anyone who paid attention could have learned volumes from her as she was a great communicator, a student of the world and an extraordinary teacher. To put it in context, Koko was much smarter than many humans. She could do things that other animals could not. Also, things most people could not.

New York Post

After Koko breached the language berm that we thought separated us from all other species, more animals have come across. There is Kanzi, the 37-year-old bonobo who can understand hundreds of lexigrams representing words and actions and can construct sentences by pointing out the correct symbol on a screen. There is Chaser, the 14-year-old border collie, who knows the name of 1,022 objects and can retrieve them on command. There was Alex, the 31-year-old gray parrot, who died in 2007 with a vocabulary of 150 words and the same ability as Koko and Kanzi to assemble them into thoughts and sentences. All these animals are extraordinary and different in their own way.

But not only did Koko give us insight into ourselves, she was the primary ambassador for all gorillas, prompting us to see them not just as apes, but also as gentle and caring individuals with the capacity to learn, communicate with us and grieve for us. Koko had a rare capacity to connect with people. She captivated people with her inherent ability to receive and return the affection, her capacity for nurturing and her empathy in times of tragedy. These are qualities that would benefit every human being.

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