The Gorilla Foundation / / Teacher's Materials


Is Koko affected by the current international crisis?
Yes. Koko has been extremely anxious and depressed since Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2001. She has asked Penny to stay longer; insists on placing Penny in her nest with her, and requires much more interaction from caregivers than before. We think she has simply overheard the staff talking about the news, and probably saw some coverage (inadvertently) on her TV. Thus, we are screening her TV habits much more closely, and giving her some extra attention to make her feel more secure. See Penny's Journal (Nov. 28, 2001) for a closer look at Koko's response.
1. Is Koko still alive?
Koko is alive and well!
2. How old is Koko?
Koko was born on July 4th, 1971. You can figure out Koko's age by using math. Subtract Koko's birth date from today's date. For example, if today is September 12, 2001, your equation would look like this:
Year Month Day
Current 2001 9 12
Minus Birth - 1971 - 7 - 4
Koko's Age 30 2 8

Therefore, Koko's age on Sep. 12, 2001 was 30 years, 2 months and 8 days

It gets a little tricky if today's month and/or day is a smaller number than Koko's birth day or month, but you can still figure it out as follows: If the current month is smaller than the birth month, subtract 1 from the year result, and subtract the difference in months from 12 (since there are 12 months in a year). Then, if the current day is smaller than the birth day, subtract 1 from the above month result, and subtract the difference in days from 30 (since there are an average of 30 days per month). So, for example, if the current date was Mar. 1, 2001 (3/1/2001), Koko's age would then be 29 years, 7 months and 27 days. (Work this out with your class if necessary.)
3. Where does Koko live?
Koko lives at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California. Koko's home is in the Santa Cruz Mountains, about 35 miles south of San Francisco. She has her own specially equipped building and two outdoor play areas.
4. Can I visit Koko at the Gorilla Foundation?
While we would love to allow all of Koko's fans to meet her, the Gorilla Foundation is not open to the public for visits. Strangers on our grounds deeply upset our male gorilla, Ndume, and we try to keep the environement as stress-free as possible. So to avoid causing undue stress to the gorillas, we must regretfully turn down the many hundreds of people who request visits each year.

Although we realize there is no substitute for a face-to-face visit, you can enjoy Koko in action on video. You might also visit Koko's nephew Shango at her birthplace, the San Francisco Zoo. In addition, the plans we have for our Maui preserve include a Visitor's Center, where we hope to have live video coverage of the gorillas just being themselves, and possibly video-conferencing capabilities whereby people could "visit" with Koko without stressing the other gorillas.
5. Does Koko still have a cat?
After "All Ball" died in 1984 (as written about in Koko's Kitten), Koko was very sad. Koko got a new yellow cat that she named "Lipstick." Following Lipstick's death, Koko got a smoke-gray tailess cat that she named "Smoky." Smoky stayed with Koko for many years, until she passed away of natural causes (at a ripe old age for cats) in 2004. She was a lively and healthy adult cat, pampered and adored by all of us here at the Foundation. Smoky used to spend her days just being a normal cat, roaming the wooded grounds or lounging in the house or office.

In 2000, Koko made friends with a black and white kitten named Mo-Mo, who was adopted from the local Humane Society. Mo-Mo came to visit Koko almost every day. At night Mo would go home with DeeAnn, a former gorilla caregiver. When DeeAnn moved away from California, (in 2003) Koko was left essentially kittenless.

Koko was very gentle with all of her cat friends.. She cared for her kittens as she would her own tiny gorilla baby, cradling them gently in her arms and carrying them on her back. She has never harmed them, even when they scratch or bite, as kittens sometimes do.

However, today Koko is more interested in having a baby than another kitten.
6. Does Ndume have a cat?
Although Ndume does not have his own cat, he has been introduced to Mo-Mo and some of the kittens that have visited Koko. Ndume seems to have enjoyed saying hello to the kittens; he was calm and gentle, and he even "purred" (a sound of contentment) when the kittens were brougth near for a closer look.

Ndume also occasionally plays with the two dogs who live at the Gorilla Foundation, a Staffordshire Terrier named Max and a German Shepard, whom Michael names Flower. Both Max and Flower enjoy greeting the gorillas every morning with friendly barks and games of chase.
7. I heard that one of the gorilla died. Is that true?
Sadly, Michael, our beloved silverback, died suddenly on April 19th, 2000, of a heart attack.
8. How did Michael die?
At 10:45 in the morning, Megan Dunn, a gorilla caregiver, saw Michael collapse onto his back in his outdoor play yard. Megan saw that Michael was having trouble breathing, and he did not respond to her calls. Megan alerted Dr. Patterson ("Penny"), and they rushed to help Michael. The staff called 911 and performed CPR on Michael until the ambulance arrived. Despite all that Penny and the staff did to help, Michael passed away.

Michael's death was very unexpected. Michael was in excellent health and showed no outward signs of his heart condition.
9. How did Koko and Ndume react when Michael died?
Koko was extremely upset by Michael's death. Many people know how sad Koko was over the loss of her kitten, All Ball. Her grief for Michael is much deeper than that. Koko spent 24 years with Mike; they were friends since Koko was just five years old.

The day after Mike died, Penny sat with Koko. Penny cried as she tried to explain what had happened. Koko signed to Penny, "Cry no." Penny opened Mike's rooms and Koko quickly went in. Koko looked through Mike's blankets and tubs and then peered through the window into the yard, as if hoping to find Mike. Koko spent several long moments in silence as she sat among Mike's things.

Koko continues to spend time in Michael's rooms. We saved his blankets, which Koko frequently picks up and smells. While in Michael's room one evening, Koko gathered up all of her blankets and all of Mike's, and made one big nest out of them. When it was time for bed, Koko did not want to leave Mike's rooms. A few days later, after nesting in Mike's room, Koko took all of the blankets to her own room to sleep.

Like Koko, Ndume was also deeply affected by Mike's death. Ndume has lived at the Gorilla Foundation, as part of Koko and Michael's family, since 1991. The day after Michael's heart attack, Penny saw Ndume take a blanket and go to the spot where Mike dies. Ndume sat there for quite some time, quietly touching the ground where he had seen Michael collapse the day before. The following day he returned with several blankets, and again sat quietly. Free-living gorillas will often sit with the body of a dead member of the group, but in this case, Michael's body had been removed.

One day, shortyly after Mike died, Ndume took a barrel outside and placed it under Mike's window. Climbing up on it, Ndume strained to see into Mike's room, perhaps looking for him. When given access to Mike's rooms, Ndume now grabs all of his blankets and toys from his own rooms and moves them into Mike's rooms.

Following Michael's death, Koko indicated with Sign Language that she wanted the light left on at night when she went to bed. Both Koko and Ndume were reluctant to spend time alone after Michael's death, so their caregivers stayed with them much more than usual.
10. Did Koko cry when Michael died?
While gorillas do not shed tears, they do make a "hoot cry" noise (a mournful vocalization) when they are sad. Gorillas are very social animals, and often make this type of cry when they are unwillingly separated from each other. During the weeks following Michael's death, both Koko and Ndume were heard making hoot cried, particularly at night. For months after Michael's death, Koko would sit with her chin on her chest and her lower lip drooped down, a recognizable sad expression.

Without a doubt, both Koko and Ndume miss their friend Michael, and are sad that he is gone.
11. How are Koko and Ndume doing now?
Koko and Ndume have had several sad months, but as time goes by they are beginning to adjust to the loss of their friend, Michael.

Koko's relationship with Ndume is changing, as he begins to assume the role of the alpha silverback male. Interestingly, as Ndume takes on more of Mike's behaviors, Koko has taken on some of Ndume's; perhaps a sign that she identifies more with Ndume than she has in the past.

Koko is now willing to be closer to Ndume than she has ever been before. Koko and Ndume have been running by each other in the yard, back and forth, getting closer with each pass, and exchanging what can be described as a "high-five." Koko now approaches Ndume while he is nesting, and Ndume does not get up and move as he would have in the past. The Gorilla Foundation caregivers are encouraging this new closeness and hope it might eventually lead to mating behavior.
12. What do free-living gorillas eat?
Gorillas eat mostly plant foods like leaves, shoots, fruit, bulbs, bark, vines and nettles. They also eat ants, termites, grubs, worms, and insect larvae.
13. What does Koko like to eat?
Koko's diet includes a wide variety of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables. Her facorites are nuts, apples, gourmet tofu dishes, and corn on the cob. Koko doesn't care much for radishes or endive, and she is allergic to oats.
14. What are Koko's favorite toys?
Some of Koko's favorite toys are rubber duckies, Pound Purries (small kitty cats toys), realistic-looking alligator and lizard toys, and troll dolls.
15. How does Koko sleep?
Koko, like all gorillas, builds a nest each night to sleep in. Unlike most gorillas, Koko's nest is made out of warm, soft blankets. She usually brings her stuffed dolls and other toys to bed with her. She sleeps for about 10 to 13 hours each night.
16. What does Koko like to do?
Koko likes to eat, play chase and tug-of-war, and watch t.v. Some of Koko's favorite t.v. shows are "Sesame Street" and cooking shows. Koko also has many video tapes that she can choose to watch. Koko prefers live action to cartoons. She does not like movies which are violent or show animals being hurt.
17. Has Koko had a baby?
No, not yet. She and Ndume do spend as much time together as possible, and we hope that someday they will have a baby.
18. If Koko does have a baby, will Koko teach her baby sign language?
We don't know, and we are interested in finding out. We think she will because we have seen her sign to her dolls and mold her dolls' hands into signs.
19. Does Koko think of Penny as her mother?
Penny's relationship with Koko is much like that of a mother and daughter. Penny has been with Koko since Koko was a baby, and Penny spends time with her every day. Penny makes sure that Koko is cared for. She feeds Koko, brushes her teeth, reads to her, teaches her, and helps her get ready for bed at night.
20. How does Penny teach Koko?
Penny teaches Koko sign language by making the signs herself while saying the words, and also by actually molding Koko's hands into the shape of the signs. Penny goes over vocabulary lists, plays games, gives Koko rewards for correct answers to questions, and even gives Koko tests.
21. Does Ndume know sign language?
Ndume has not been formally taught sign language, but he is very observant and has picked up a few signs over the years by watching Koko, Michael, and the caregivers signing. Ndume also has an understanding of some spoken words.
22. Can Koko read?
Koko has had some instruction in reading, especially in the 1980's. Koko can recognize letters and their sounds, and seems to be able to identify some words. Penny is continuing to help Koko learn to read. Koko enjoys looking at magazines and books and having Penny read to her.
23. Can Koko count / do math?
Koko has not been taught math, but she does know a few basic numbers and signs for some numbers. Koko has an understanding of more and less, and can judge distance (for instance, when she runs past Ndume and reaches out to give him a "high-five"), which are math skills.

Penny has given Koko different types of math tests, and while Koko does well on these tests, she gets bored with them easily.
24. Can Koko use a computer?
Koko has already learned to use a special custom-made computer that translates symbols on a keypad into both printed words on a screen, and spoken words heard through an electronic speaker system. This computer was made for Koko by Apple, as one of its research programs (Vivarium) in the 1980's. Koko has not used a computer much since then, but one day we would like to work with a computer company to design a gorilla-friendly visual interface that allows Koko to surf the internet for her favorite things. (Will we set her up with an email account? Possibly, if there are other gorillas on line by then.)
25. Can Koko talk?
Koko can make some vocal sounds, but she cannot speak the way that humans speak. Although it might seem like talking is very easy, it is actually a very complex process. Several things account for humans ability to speak, including the size and shape of our mouth, nose, tongue, teeth, lungs, and vocal folds. Each of these "speech structures" is very different in gorillas (and other animals) than it is in humans. The reason gorillas and other animals can't speak like humans do has nothing to do with intelligence, they are just built differently, the same way that humans are built differently from gorillas, which makes it impossible for us to exactly duplicate the vocal sounds that they easily and naturally make.
26. Can Koko write to me or draw me a picure?
While Koko doe like to "write" and draw with pens and crayons, she is not able to write letters. However, the Gorilla Foundation does welcome student letters and drawings. You can either email us at:, or mail us at:
The Gorilla Foundation
P.O. Box 620530
Woodside, CA 94062
27. How can I work with gorillas when I grow up?
A good way to start would be to learn as much as you can about gorillas and other animals. If you are able to, work as a volunteer in an organization where you can get experience around animals. When you are old enough to work, look for positions where you can gain exposure to great apes, such as in a zoo.

Study hard in school, especially in classes like science. For a career working with gorillas, you will probably need a college degree in a field like anthropology, primatology, zoology, or animal behavior. We have a list of colleges that offer graduate primatology programs. If you are interested, email us at:

You may also want to check Brown University's on-line list of colleges that offer graduate primatology programs, which is located at
28. What can I do to help gorillas (including Koko) now?
See the Gorilla Foundation's "Action Project Ideas," included in this class package.

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