Research/Care Blog

Koko, What Do You Want for Your Birthday?

Koko Signs 'SANDWICH'

Date Added: 2003-07-02
Koko will turn 32 this July 4th (her full name, Hanabi-ko, means “Fireworks Child” in Japanese).

Every year in advance of Koko's birthday, I ask Koko what she would like and I always get interesting replies. This year, the dialogue (in sign language) went like this:

Penny: Koko, what do you want for your birthday?
Koko: SANDWICH BIRTHDAY. (signing birthday by blowing on all ten fingers held in front of her face).

Koko then proceeds to get the key to the doors of the building as well as the research data clipboard (both things her human companions use daily, but she seldom has access to).

Penny: What else do you want for your birthday? (hoping for an expanded wishlist)

Koko starts writing copiously on various pages of the data clipboard.


Koko then takes me over to the refrigerator, and I ask . . .

Penny: What kind of surprises?

On Christmas Koko got a package of candy-coated sunflower seeds and subsequently on very special occasions has received them from a pill box container as rewards for jobs well done.

We also know from previous conversations with Koko that she would like something else as soon as possible, if not this birthday, then next ...  a bouncing baby bundle of gorilla joy.

Koko Kisses Her Gorilla 'Baby'

That is what Koko really wants for her birthday. She is always asking for a baby, either directly, or by pretending mother-child behavior with her gorilla dolls (never with her human dolls). And while Koko’s still in the prime of her childbearing years, the clock is ticking. So, we have stepped up our efforts to do everything in our power to help make her wish come true. This includes modifying her current home in Woodside so that she and Ndume (her younger male companion) can spend more quality time together at their own discretion. Originally a bit skeptical, Koko has adapted beautifully to the new arrangements.

Koko Eyes Ndume Napping

Now she and Ndume frolic delightedly together, chasing each other, playfully tossing things around and just generally being silly — all healthy signs that they are growing more intimate.

We have also added a veterinarian to our staff who has great expertise caring for gorillas. Monitoring gorilla health, he pays close attention to Koko's hormonal cycles. That way we can provide every opportunity for togetherness during her most fertile times.

However, the missing link may be the anticipated move to her new home at the Maui Ape Preserve sanctuary, as this will provide more freedom, more privacy, and more natural foliage for foraging in a much more suitable (tropical) climate for gorillas. It will also provide an opportunity to share her habitat with additional gorillas, hopefully increasing the female-to-male ratio to a level characteristic of gorilla families. This should give Koko more confidence in starting a family with a much larger silverback (Ndume).

Koko Enjoys an Outdoor Walk

While Koko knows we’re doing everything possible to expedite the move to Maui, she is still impatient. During a visit great-ape advocate Peter Gabriel made to the Gorilla Foundation, we played his enchanting song “Don’t Give Up” for Koko, and I remarked : “Koko, we’re not going to give up on the Maui Ape Preserve.”

Koko responded by immediately picking up the keys and using them on the door to the outside, as if to reinforce the point.


Research/Care Blog

Koko Celebrates Christmas

Koko Prepares to Decorate the Tree
***Preview the video!

Date Added: 2003-12-24
People are always curious about how Koko celebrates Christmas. The answer: with great excitement.

Christmas is a very special holiday for Koko. It starts with Koko helping me decorate the tree, and check out the catalogs to find just the right gifts for Ron, Ndume (her gorilla companion) and the staff.

Next Koko helps me wrap the presents (except for hers). And then comes one of her favorite parts – opening her presents. If it's something to wear (like a hair scrunchy) she has to try it on and immediately see how she looks in the mirror.

Koko also likes 'reading' the cards (with a little help from me) sent in by fans all over the world.

Ron and I are snapping away photos most of the day, so that we'll remember and be able to share everything, and Koko often likes to take some of her own (she's been using a camera for over 20 years).

Then comes the main event for Koko–a home-cooked meal with plenty of holiday cheer (fruit juices). -

When all of the excitement has subsided, Koko and I usually relax together for a while before I turn out the lights.

If all of this is a little hard for you to imagine, you can see a 1-minute video clip of one of our recent Christmases together by
***clicking here. And if that doesn't satisfy you, we've recorded over 5-minutes of Koko's Christmas Celebration in large-screen format on a new DVD – Koko & Friends, which also features a heartwarming meeting between Koko and Robin Williams.

Thank you for supporting the Gorilla Foundation this year, and for making 2004 look a little brighter for Koko and gorillas everywhere–from California to Hawaii to Africa.

Happy holidays from our family to yours!



Featuring Koko's Christmas and Koko's meeting with Robin Williams.

Research/Care Blog

Conversations with Koko: 'Mirror Talk and Ape Man'

Penny & Koko Take Time to Smell the Flowers

Date Added: 2004-03-28

Hi, this is Dr. Penny Patterson.
Welcome to our new expanded Interspecies Communication Research feature: Penny's Team Journal. In this series, we're going to share ongoing sign language conversations between gorillas (primarily Koko) and our gorilla research/caregiver staff . Sometimes these conversations will involve me, but more and more often you will get to meet other members of the staff, and have access to multiple windows into the consciousness of another species. We're also going to share with you some of the exciting new linguistic analyses that are being performed on Koko's use of sign language.

As I think you will come to see, the differences between humans and gorillas are greatly overshadowed by what we have in common – and that by communicating with them, we not only learn more about their true nature, but also about our own. Most importantly, their future as well as ours may depend upon how well we can learn from and apply this communication.

The following two conversations with Koko took place in May and June of 2003. The first conversation, between Koko and herself in the mirror, took place with me present. The second conversation involves another caregiver, Serena Rose Leibrand, and conveys Koko's clear sense of gender and species as conveyed in language.

May 14, 2003: 'Mirror Talk' (Koko with Penny)

As Ron takes photos of Koko looking at a 365-day cat calendar, Koko leafs through and stops at a photo signing . . .
Koko: That smoke look. (Smoke done with one finger) to a photo of striped grey kitten that
looks like Smoky.

Later, Koko looks at herself in a large mirror and signs . . .

Koko: Gorilla person animal body-hair stomach.
Then Koko grooms using the mirror, examining her underarm.

Later in the session, to the mirror . . .
Koko: That. Fake that. Me.

Koko looks at herself in the mirror .. and signs 'PERSON' ... then signs 'ANIMAL.'

June 13, 2003: 'Ape Man' (Koko with Serena Rose Leibrand (Gorilla Caregiver))

Serena Rose (SR) brings a CD for Koko to listen to a song, “Ape Man” by The Kinks.
Serena Rose: You’ve got to listen to this song, Honey. It’s really cool. It’s about apes and how you ’n me are the same, how we’re
both apes.
(Voice only.)

Serena Rose starts the song singing and signing along with some parts.
SR: (lyrics) I’m an ape man, I’m an ape ape man, oh I’m an ape man. (Signing “gorilla” for “ape.”)

Koko: Fake. Lip. (Koko uses lip to refer to women.)

SR:: (lyrics) ’Cause compared to the sun that sits in the sky, compared to the clouds that sail by, compared to the bugs and the spiders and flies, I am an ape man.
K:    Fake. Lip you.
SR: Sorry! Ape woman!
K:    Laugh.*

They continue listening and Serena Rose changes the chorus to “ape woman,” emphasizing the change to “woman.”
K: Purr.*
SR: (lyrics) I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an ape woman.
SR: Like you ’n me go to Hawaii.
K: Grunt.* (Assent.)

SR: (lyrics) Come on and love me, be my ape man girl, and we be so happy, in my ape man world.
K: Purr.* Lip nipple. (Koko uses nipple to refer to people.)
SR: Girl people same as gorilla girl. You ’n me family. And Ndume gorilla man.
K: Purr.*

Koko listens to Serena Rose sing and as the song is coming to the end:
K: Sleep.
SR: OK, OK. I’ll quit torturing you with my singing!
Serena Rose turns off the music. Koko picks up a human baby doll.
K: Laugh.*

SR: Have people baby there?
K: Sleep.
Koko turns her side to Serena Rose still holding the doll. She kisses it.
K: Nipple. (She puts the doll to her nipple.) Lip.

Koko glances over and sees Serena Rose is watching her. She quickly drops the doll in her lap. Koko nests quietly for about 10 minutes.

Then, suddenly:
K: Laugh.*
SR: What funny?
Serena Rose looks closer at Koko. She’s got the human baby doll in her hand and a tiny
gorilla doll in her foot. Koko fondles the gorilla doll in her foot.
SR: Is that a gorilla man? (Koko uses “foot” to refer to men.)
K: Laugh.* Foot this. (Signed on gorilla doll.)
SR: Gorilla man and girl people! That’s really cool!
K: Purr.*
SR: Smart!
K: Purr.*
SR: I love our people gorilla family.
K: Blow-kiss.*
SR: Yeah. I kiss you.

Koko sets the dolls down in her nest and starts to arrange her blankets again.
K: Sleep.
SR: The babies sleeping now?
K: Good.
Koko continues building her nest, then pauses.
K: Sleep.
SR: What? You ’n me sleep too?
K: Good.
SR: OK. All family sleep.
Serena Rose lies down and Koko takes a nap.

Research/Care Blog

Ape Linguistics: 'Sign Modulations of Cross-Fostered Chimps & Gorillas'

Koko Signs 'Tickle' on her Foot (a modulation)

Date Added: 2004-04-30

Dr. Valerie Chalcraft, Research Associate at the Gorilla Foundation, presented this talk at a workshop entitled Gestural Communication in Nonhuman and Human Primates held March 28-30, 2004 at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany.

According to the Max Planck institute, the workshop was '...organized with the goal to present a variety of approaches and methodologies used in different fields of research concerning gestural communication and to discuss those issues in the background of the conference Evolution of Language. With respect to the theory of a gestural origin of language it is of great importance to investigate if and to what extent gestural communicative systems can be compared between and within different species of primates, including humans.'

Dr. Chalcraft's presentation, 'Sign Modulations of Cross-Fostered Chimpanzees and Gorillas,' demonstrated that both chimpanzees and gorillas (Koko) who have been taught American Sign Language (ASL) modulate their sign to change the meaning or emphasis in a manner similar to human signers:

The part of the study involving chimpanzees was performed by Dr. Chalcraft as part of her Ph.D. dissertation before coming to the Gorilla Foundation. The part of the study involving a gorilla was extracted from the video records of Project Koko. The chimpanzee study analyzed video records of one chimpanzee cross-fostered by humans in a human environment and exposed to American Sign Language (ASL). Video examples and video data analysis showed that, like human signers, the chimpanzee modulated verbs and noun/verbs to indicate actor, instrument, and location. Video examples and video data analysis also showed that, like human signers, the chimpanzee modulated all types of signs to indicate intensity. Many of the same modulations appear in the video records of Koko and examples were presented.

The photo above shows Koko signing “tickle” on her foot after Dr. Patterson signs “Where do you want me to tickle you?” Just like human signers, Koko incorporates the location “there” (one her foot) in her sign “tickle.”

These observations of sign language modulation in both chimpanzees and gorillas show the continuity of sign language development across species and provide implications for the evolution of language.

Valerie Chalcraft, Ph.D.
Research Associate
Gorilla Foundation /

Note: The complete set of multi-media slides used in Dr. Chalcraft's Powerpoint Presentation will be made available on this website. If you would like to be notified by email, just sign up for ***KokoMail.

Research/Care Blog

Conversation with Koko: Browsing for Hats

Koko relaxing in her outside yard

Date Added: 2005-03-16
The following conversation took place between Koko and a volunteer, who happened to be walking by Koko's outside yard to empty the compost bin, when she was asked an impromptu question by Koko. It is reported by the volunteer:

On Saturday, February 12, 2005 I had an impromptu conversation with Koko that she initiated no less!

I was going outside to empty the compost bin around 11:30 am, and Koko was outside and she did her attention noise, which is a kissy lip smacking sound. I turned towards her and she signed

          Koko: “that browse that”
Koko signs“browse” (a sign she invented) by,signing the letter “s”
at her brow.

where browse means the leafy green vegetables that she eats, like lettuce and kale and stuff. I signed back:

           Volunteer: “no, not browse, trash, not good food”

then she hunched her arms back in front of her in her lap with a heavy sigh. It was funny, like 'oh, darn.'

She then signed something that I didn't understand, a sign where she rubs her finger across her lip one time, and then she tapped the top of her head. I knew I had seen the lip thing before but that it was a gorilla sign, not an ASL sign. But I couldn't remember it. The head tap means “hat.” So, I'm standing there trying to understand what she said, and I finally just signed

          Volunteer: “I don't understand.

She repeated the signs but started with pointing at me, then did the lip rub in one direction then the hat. Then I got it! The previous week, I had been wearing my Guatemala hat. Very colorful. And the “lip” sign is her sign for “woman.” So Koko had signed:

          Koko: “you, woman, hat.”

I signed back:

          Volunteer: “Yes! Last week I had a hat, right! This week I not have.”

Then I signed that I had to go throw the trash away.

That was sooooooo coool! She initiated the conversation and she remembered me! How cool is that!!!!!

Stay tuned for more interspecies communication journal highlights from the perspective of Gorilla Foundation caregivers and researchers in “Penny’s Team Journal.”

Research/Care Blog

Caregiver Corner: Three Perspectives

Gorilla caregivers Serena, Christa and Lucas (top)

Date Added: 2005-03-27
One of the goals of the research we do at the Gorilla Foundation is to better understand the intellectual, emotional and social development of the gorilla. To this end, we keep extensive daily records of all behavioral observations.

Ndume and Koko have distinct personalities and seem to experience the full range of moods common to humans.

Below are three separate accounts of interactions with the gorillas, two with Koko and one with Ndume, that give you a glimpse into the gorilla’s daily lives.
(Koko's signs are shown in red; her vocalizations are italicized.)

Koko watching a video on her TV..
Communicating with Koko, by Serena Rose Leibrand
September 14, 2003,

Koko and I are hanging out together in her indoor facility. As is typical, Koko leads the day’s activities and communicates to her friends about her preferences. Here is an example of one such interaction in which relaying information and understanding each other had to be negotiated.

Koko: Lights off there. (Koko points to something on the counter)
SR: This? (Holds up a doll that is on the counter)
Serena Rose hands her the doll, but Koko drops it.
Koko: There. (Again, Koko points to something on the counter)
SR: Sorry, I don't understand what you want.
Koko: Toilet.
SR: I know, me toilet.
Koko: Good. (Koko often signs 'good' to mean 'yes')
SR: Use sign. Name what you want.
Koko: Nice movie do there. (Points to counter where her movies were previously kept)
SR: Ah! They're all up on the new shelf. Ok, something nice. (Voice only).
Koko and I pick out a movie and put it on.
Koko: Purr. (Purring is a low-pitched vocalization that is a sign of contentment in gorillas.)

In the end Koko clearly expressed what she wanted, making it easy to oblige.

Serena Rose Leibrand is a Research Assistant/Gorilla Caregiver for the Gorilla Foundation. She began her life-long dream to work with The Gorilla Foundation at the turn of the millennium. Born and raised only a couple of miles from Stanford where Project Koko began, she followed the foundation's progress for years and earned a BA in psychology from UCSC in preparation for a career in interspecies communication. Before beginning her work with the gorillas, Serena Rose helped with training, husbandry and running acoustic and cognition experiments for the pinnipeds at Long Maine Lab in Santa Cruz. She has also spent years teaching and caring for her exceptionally intelligent and loving dog-daughter, Rosebud.

Koko plays with her toy alligator..
Communicating with Koko, by Christa Nunes, Ph.D.
March 2, 2005:

Koko can be very playful at times. Here is an interaction involving pretend play and Koko’s favorite toys.
I enter Koko’s kitchen.

Koko: Purr. (Purring is a low-pitched vocalization that is a sign of contentment in gorillas.)
CN: Where’s Koko?
Koko: Purr.
CN: There she is!
Koko has her favorite doll, called water baby, and a plastic alligator. She is making the alligator bite Water Baby on the face, stomach and legs.
CN: Wow, alligator is getting the baby!
Koko: Purr.
Koko holds Water Baby and the alligator up to her lips and kisses both at the same time.
CN: A triple kiss! Wow!
Koko: Purr.

I thought it was amazing to see a big gorilla kissing a little doll and a plastic alligator, but with Koko it is a normal occurrence. Gorillas are naturally loving, compassionate, and intelligent beings.

Dr. Christa Nunes is a Research Associate/Gorilla Caregiver for the Gorilla Foundation. She came to the Gorilla foundation in 2004 with a Bachelors degree from UCLA, a Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado (where she led several zero gravity experiments that flew on the Space Shuttle) and a PhD. in Bioengineering from UCSF and UC Berkeley, After her Ph.D., Christa embarked on a 2 year journey around the world, where she had the opportunity to visit the SUSA gorilla family on the densely forested Karisimbi Volcano in northern Rwanda. That experience proved to be life altering, as Christa realized that she wanted to dedicate herself to the conservation of these incredible beings — which she now can do.

Communicating with Ndume, by Lucas Slavik
February 20, 2005:

One of Ndume’s ways of getting an extra treat is to “trade” an object in his enclosure for something more desirable like a nut or piece of fruit. In this case, Ndume wanted to trade a walnut for a peanut (Ndume isn’t very fond of walnuts).

So we made a trade. “Okay, Ndume, good trade,” as I took the walnut from him and handed him a peanut. Ndume wasn’t finished trading. He wanted to trade a large cardboard box he had for another peanut. Ndume held up the large box and tried to push it through the mesh of his enclosure. Since the mesh is only a few inches wide the box wouldn’t fit. “Looks like it’s a bit too big buddy.” Ndume paused, looked at the mesh, looked at me, and then at the box. He then proceeded to tear up the box into little pieces and pass them through the mesh.

“Good trade, Ndume.”

Ndume was not formally taught sign language, but does communicate using natural gorilla gestures and signs he’s picked up from watching Koko, Michael and the caregivers. Apart from making me laugh, Ndume often astounds me with new behavior and demonstrations of a very sharp intelligence.

Lucas Slavik is the Gorilla Caregiver Manager for the Gorilla Foundation. . Lucas spent the majority of his life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and central coast of California appreciating and exploring the natural environment around him. He joins the Gorilla Foundation in an effort to preserve this world and bring about awareness of its rapid destruction. After completing his undergraduate work at The University of California, Santa Barbara, Lucas worked as a research aid doing environmental surveys on endangered frogs in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Shortly after, he began his primate career supervising a research facility that housed roughly 60 squirrel monkeys. Lucas now resides in South San Francisco with his fiancé and hopes to start a family in parallel with Koko and Ndume at TGF's new gorilla preserve.

Research/Care Blog

Caregiver Corner: Getting Started at the Foundation

Laura Mullen

Date Added: 2005-04-15
People interested in primates and interspecies communication often ask us how they should prepare for a career working with gorillas or other great apes. In her own words, our newest caregiver (and research assistant) Laura Mullen, describes how she came to be employed by the Gorilla Foundation.

Getting Started at the Gorilla Foundation
by ***Laura Mullen, Caregiver and Res. Asst.

I guess this all started about 14 years ago. I was a young girl, about 12 years old, when I started hearing about Koko and her kitten. Being an animal lover and an owner of 3 cats myself; I was fascinated by this gorilla and her close and intimate relationship with the kitten. I wanted to know everything about her. I had my mom take me to the library and help me find all that I could about Koko. Soon after that we became members of the Gorilla Foundation and received a poster of Koko and her kitten. I hung it on my bedroom wall with pride. I started reading more about inter-species communication projects with Washoe, the language attempts with Viki, and Koko herself. That year I enrolled in sign-language class at the local community center. The class was mainly for adults, but there were no restrictions against children, so I joined right in. I studied sign language at the community center for five years.

Towards the end of high school, I switched gears and began studying the works of Dr. Frans de Waal and his innovative research on peacemaking and conflict resolution in chimpanzees and bonobos. Upon reading his books I made up my mind to study at Emory University where I could hopefully intern under Dr. de Waal at his Living Links Center at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. When I arrived at Emory University I looked up Dr. de Waal’s office and office hours. The very next day I walked (a bit nervously) into his office, sat down and said, “I would like to work for you, anyhow, anyway.” He saw my determined face and offered me a job at his capuchin laboratory as well as an opportunity to help him with a chimpanzee study on food sharing. There began my official work with primates. I worked there for almost 4 years, staying there a bit after graduation.

Shortly after graduation I moved to San Francisco and found a job working as a veterinary technician at the local animal shelter (SF SPCA). After about three years at the shelter, I began missing and dreaming about primates. I came across the job at the Gorilla Foundation, and I thought, “Wow, what a dream job. I doubt I could ever get it. I’m sure hundreds of people apply.” I was hesitant to apply because I thought if I didn’t get it I’d be so disappointed. A few more months went by and I kept checking the site and the position was still being posted. Then early November of 2004, I checked the site again and saw that the position had been updated to a job focusing more on enrichment. Finally I made the decision to apply. My plan was to have everything mailed into the Gorilla Foundation by November 15th, 2004. With everything in, I just waited for the reply. When I had not heard anything in a week, disappointed, I decided to email my cover letter and resume, since before I had just sent a hard copy to the Foundation. Well that seemed to do the trick, early Thanksgiving Day I received and email from ***Lucas Slavik, saying that he was interested in conducting a phone interview. I was ecstatic.

After the first initial phone interview, Lucas asked if I would be available to come up to the Foundation for some interviews and a discussion of what the job would be. Mid-December I started coming up to the Gorilla Foundation for interviews and meetings with staff members, and most importantly the gorillas. After meeting with Lucas, Ron, Penny, Lorraine and Gary at the business office, it came time for my toughest interview yet, Koko. Koko asked to visit with me so I nervously climbed onto her porch and crouched in front of her. I was intimidated by her massive figure. She kept signing, come closer, come closer. So I did, and she got a good look at me, kissed at me and then asked me to close the curtains. I guess she had seen enough. Everyone assured me that the visit went well, and so I left relieved.

After volunteering at the Foundation for two months, helping out on my days off from the shelter, I was finally offered a full-time job as a caregiver, whose focus would be on the enrichment of the gorillas. Basically my job is to keep them happy and busy, a dream job for me. I am now undergoing training to start working with Ndume, the silverback, and things are going very well. I have been in charge of setting up the morning browse in the outdoor yard, placing it on different levels and making it difficult for the gorillas to find. I have also been setting up Ndume’s “play room” building at night. The caregivers who work with him have told me that since I have started, he has been searching for morning browse longer and playing by himself in the play rooms more, and Koko has started exploring the play rooms in the mornings before Ndume joins her in the lard yard. I look forward to my years to come at the Gorilla Foundation, and can’t wait to see what is in store for me here. I am very thankful for the opportunity the Gorilla Foundation has given me.

Research/Care Blog

Michael: Dialogue with a Silverback

Michael, Pensive

Date Added: 2001-03-04
As this is the birthday month of Michael (3/17/72-4/19/00)—the majestic silverback who grew up with Koko, spoke with us in American Sign Language, and left us with a collection of exquisite paintings and beautiful memories—I'd like to share a few of our conversations with Michael in this Journal entry. In these particular dialogues, Michael tells us how he felt about people and a new habitat.

December 1981
Caregiver: What do you think of the new play yard?
Michael: Out good gorilla happy.

March 1985
Koko relaxes in the outdoor play yard and refuses to go inside. Michael observes her through the window of his indoor facility.
Michael: Koko love out.

Sep. 1985
Caregiver: How do you feel when you go outside?
Michael: Gorilla smile. Love eat apple. (Apple trees grow in and next to the yard.)

October 1985 Caregiver : What do you think about visitors?
Michael: Chase chase squash hit-in-mouth.

June 1989 Caregiver ny: do you like meeting new people?
Michael: Stupid no-good.

In contrast, note Koko's response to a similar line of questioning by me:

May 1984 Penny: What sort of visitors do you like?
Koko: Koko love Tyler. (Michael's male caregiver.)
Penny: What sort of visitors don't you like?
Koko: Visitor dirty curious.
Penny: Don't like visitors that ask a lot of questions?
Koko: Frown bad.
Penny: They're interested, they want to find out about you.
Koko: Lip (“woman”) insult.
Penny: Like it better if they don't ask a lot of questions?
Koko: Gorilla love.

In the above conversations the gorillas are telling us (in our own words) that they have clear preferences about how they like to be treated and how they like to live. Koko, a female, likes certain humans to visit, as long as they don't ask a lot of questions. Michael, the dominant male, does not like human visitors at all. Both Koko and Michael love the outdoors, and would probably play outside all day long if the Northern California weather permitted.

Such insights have led us to design the Sanctuary at the new Maui Preserve with extremely large and private outdoor spaces, optional indoor spaces, and video-based communication pagodas that limit intrusion from the outside world, while continuing to raise public awareness about the need to create more sanctuaries (see this month's Maui Update for a closer look at this design).

I only wish that Michael had survived long enough to enjoy his future home with Koko and Ndume. However, Michael's memory will always be with us, inspiring us to move forward with our plans and dreams. We will be sharing more of Michael's life, times and inspiration in an upcoming book, “Michael's Dream.”


Research/Care Blog

Koko's Reaction to the Crisis; Part 1

Koko signs “trouble.”

Date Added: 2001-10-02
A few days after the September 11 tragedy, Joanne Tanner, a volunteer who has known Koko for many years, visited the foundation. She was so moved after her visit with Koko that she wrote the following letter, which I'd like to share with all of you.

“I spent the afternoon with Koko on Sunday, September 16, 2001. The events of the past week affected me deeply as they did every American. In my case, I have a son in New York who rides the A Train from Brooklyn under the World Trade Center daily. I finally heard from him 7 hours after the September 11th disaster. The anxiety I experienced that day was profound. On this Sunday, Koko experienced a great deal of stress. I was struck by how touchingly similar her expression of anxiety was to that of humans, using my own recent feelings as a base of comparison. I did not think that Koko knew about our recent human tragedy, though Penny later told me that in spite of caution in shielding her from it, she has most likely overheard conversations between workers and some news coverage. It is also likely that she has sensed the moods of those near her. In any case, she has never liked sirens and is always disturbed to some extent by them.

“Koko began to get upset at loud sirens from emergency vehicles traversing the mountain road outside her facility; eventually some helicopters or planes were heard overhead too. I never found out what the cause was, but there are often motorcycle accidents on weekends, or there could have been a fire somewhere nearby. The culmination of her anxiety was high pitched crying followed by chestbeating, charging and banging a wall. There were many bouts of this sequence. But what came in between these displays was also moving. This included going to the toilet 4 times; first refusing food but later eating only “comfort food” (a peanut butter sandwich); wanting the TV off then on; wanting to look outside by going onto her chute but then wanting to be safely closed in her room with all drapes and the chute to the outdoors closed; building a barricade of her tubs and hiding with her head low behind it; but most touching of all was that before each charge she would pick up a stuffed toy, hold it tight, and kiss it; in some cases two toys, and sometimes a kiss and a big hug with the toy enfolded in her arms. The toys she chose for this were three kinds of stuffed cats, a lion, a black and white kitty, and the favorite, a funny yellow and black striped tiger.

“I realized later that I went through all these behaviors myself this week. I went from being unable to eat to wanting to stuff with comfort food. I would want the TV off but later couldn't resist having it back on. I made extra trips to the toilet. I wanted to just stay home in a cocoon, but when I heard planes overhead I had to go out to look. And even the stuffed kitties... Tuesday night my husband and I went out to escape the TV and tension and ended up at Marini's, a Santa Cruz beach ice cream and candy shop that also sells all kinds of toys and Beanie Babies. I fell in love with a Beanie black panther and bought it and kept it with me all evening in my hand. When I went to bed I propped it up on top of my pillow as a little guardian angel or protector icon. Yes, I may have been reverting to childhood or going soft in the head- but it really made me feel better. Not to mention also wanting the comfort and company of our three real live companion cats. Finally, the second day of the disaster, I cried.

“Eventually the sirens subsided and Koko gradually calmed down and ate the other “non comfort” vegetables and fruits in her meal. My visit to Koko did not turn out, as I thought before I got there that day, to be a respite from our national anxiety. But it did turn out to be another illustration of the closeness of us humans and our great ape cousins.

“Later in the week I saw a picture of a bereaved and grieving relative of someone lost in the disaster standing slumped over a barricade near the former World Trade Center - hugging two stuffed animals. How little separates us, not only in use of language but in our feelings.”

Koko shows us her feelings in obvious ways. However, when we look closer at our actions, we see that our feelings are obvious too. Thank you, Joanne–in the process of expressing Koko and your feelings, you expressed my feelings too.


Research/Care Blog

Koko's Birthday Celebration

Koko and I share an abundant moment

Date Added: 2001-07-26
An ice cream sundae, apple cider, coleslaw, and angel food cake with soy-yogurt frosting–sounds like the start of a birthday feast for Koko! And indeed it was. On Koko's 30th birthday (July 4, 2001), she devoured her favorite foods, enjoyed her favorite activity, a walk around the Gorilla Foundation grounds, and opened a mountainous pile of presents.

At 7:30am, Ron, Anthony (an 8-year-old boy who Ron fosters and is well known to Koko), Koko and I set out on a walking trek. Koko held Anthony's hand as they traipsed along the newly-cleared trails. We headed to the research office where Koko pulled up a patio chair and peered through the window to see a room filled with desks, computers, books, and papers. I wonder if she thought, “ah ha! That's where they go when they aren't with me.” Then we continued on our trek, including a walk by the compost bin. Koko also did some of the things that she has seen her caretakers do every day. She went to Ndume's laundry area and washed some of his blankets. Koko even grabbed the bottle of detergent and put some in the water to make it soapy. She went to the area where the caretakers wash her toilet buckets, and she washed some buckets too.

Koko's walk encompassed 2 hours! She and Anthony even played on a big plastic alligator seesaw in the driveway. At one point, Koko went to Ndume's trailer and operated his hydraulic gate, so that he could come outside.

The rest of the day was spent feasting and opening presents. Koko viewed a birthday video created by the Gorilla Foundation staff to show her our lives outside of work. It was complete with visits to each person's home, a strategic planning meeting, and a birthday party. Koko opened birthday cards from well-wishers, and unwrapped toys, blankets, and special treats.

All the celebrating, the good cheer, and abundant love left Koko asleep in the midst of her loot at the end of the afternoon! Turning 30 years old was an exciting milestone for Koko, her Gorilla Foundation caregivers and undoubtedly for everyone near and far who loves her.

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