Research/Care Blog

Koko Responds to 9-11 (Part 2)

Perhaps we can get along.

Date Added: 2001-11-28
While many people know that Koko is fluent in sign language, most aren't aware that she also understands a great deal of spoken English. So, when she overheard staff discussing the 9-11 tragedy, then later caught a minute of a Charlie Rose TV segment describing the incident, Koko became quite anxious. Here's an excerpt of our dialogue:

Penny: Why are you upset?
Koko Feel very sorry (then a big audible sigh).
Penny: Talk about the trouble?
Koko: Man cut-neck, know takeoff.

Koko's sign “cut-neck” was exactly the same as gorilla Michael's sign, when we asked him to describe what happened to his mother, who was poached when he was a baby in Africa. (You can see Michael signing this on video in the recent NATURE documentary “A Conversation with Koko.”)

Later, Koko signed “trouble” when she heard a low-flying plane overhead (we also have this on video).

Because of Koko's concern for our safety, and her extreme sensitivity to our emotional state (as well as what we say), the gorilla caregiver staff has been extra careful about what we discuss around her, what she views on TV, and our own attitudes about current events–they've been asked to remain positive.

We've also been giving her extra support–hugs, her favorite foods, a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration, followed by anticipation for another celebration in December. (This must sound familiar to those of you who are parents.)

Koko's empathy for us—another species—and ours for her, gives me hope for the future. More next month . . .


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Research/Care Blog

Koko's Stamp of Approval

Koko and I interact in 3D Maui Model

Date Added: 2001-06-24
As I am sitting on the swing outside the large enclosure Koko comes over to me. Amongst the notebook, daily checklist and data sheets I am holding, I have a printed version of our new 3D representation of the planned Maui Sanctuary habitat. As I review it, I share it with Koko, flipping through several pages depicting the layout of the sanctuary, including an aerial view of the 3D model. When I show her a page with herself and Ndume in the new yard she purrs* in contentment. Next I show her one (reproduced here) that includes me in the communication pagoda as well as her and Ndume outside it. She signs, “Me people, there you.”

Interesting comment, as I am clearly the one in the “cage” in this future home for the gorillas!

When I think of how much more appropriate--large, free, warm and natural--this setting will be, I yearn for the day that she and her gorilla family will actually live and prosper there.
* Purring is a low-pitched vocalization that is a sign of contentment in gorillas.

Research/Care Blog

Koko Wants to Move to New Preserve

Koko signs 'Hurry'

Date Added: 2002-02-08
It is 11:00 am and has started raining. Koko sought shelter in the covered, enclosed small yard, and stayed out for a few minutes, but with the 45 degree temperature, she decided to go back into her rooms. Inside, I got out photos of the site from my most recent trip to Maui and showed them to Koko, displaying the panoramic set first.

Penny: Maui.
As Koko looks at the photos she signs ...
Koko Visit, mean-visit mail there.
The photos came in a mailer-like envelope. I show more and explain,
Penny: This is the foundation for the play yard. She signs ...
Koko Nut there.
Penny: Yes, we could put nuts there. (Lately we have been tossing donated nuts in the shell into her play yards.)

We look at most of the rest of the photos and I narrate that we are working on moving there, with explanations of the pipes and trees and roads in the pictures. When we get to the second to the last one—a lovely one showing the site and the trees and ocean beyond, Koko signs ...
Koko All there hurry!

Then as I get out the second set Koko hold up some flowered fabric to show me,
Koko That (to the flowers).
Penny: We need flowers there, that's right! That's what's missing, isn't it?

Next we look at the second set.
Penny: Spacious place!
Koko Good.
Penny: This is where the construction is.
Koko Good.
Penny: There are banana plants growing there, and grass.

When we get to the next to the last in this set, of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Loyal Nordstrom, Koko signs ...
Koko: Look there. (To Loyal in a long flowered dress, with her nearby and nicely forested property in the background.)
Koko: There. (Again to Loyal.)
Penny: Friends there and nice trees.

I'm thinking: this is the year we will make it happen!

Please Help Us Build the Maui Preserve

Research/Care Blog

Michael: Dialogue with a Silverback

Michael, Pensive

Date Added: 2002-03-05
As this is the birthday month of the late Michael—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
Q: 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
Q: 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
Q: What do you think about visitors?
Michael: Chase chase squash hit-in-mouth.

June 1989
Q: Do you like meeting new people?
Michael: Stupid no-good.

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

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


More of the gorilla dialogues quoted in the above journal entry can be found in the following published article:
Kranz, L.A. and Patterson, F.G.P. 'State of the Art Preserve Designed For and By Gorillas.'
Humane Innovations and Alternatives, 1994, 8, 574-578.

Research/Care Blog

Koko Relates to Earth Day

Koko's at home in nature.

Date Added: 2002-04-20
Koko seems to have a natural appreciation and respect for the earth and its many creatures, and sometimes provides a role model for children of all ages. Let me illustrate with some examples.

Not only has Koko taken good care of various kittens over the years, but she also once found and cared for a tree frog. One morning, Koko carried around this little tree frog in a pocket under her arm, where her companion, Michael, would not be able to find it. She then released it into a protected area.

Koko also knows her own strength, and that she cannot always be trusted with delicate objects. Once we gave her a hand mirror (to self-groom) which she accidentally broke. We later offered her an unbreakable plastic version. The next morning, to our surprise, we found the plastic mirror had been slipped through the door of her sleeping quarters into the kitchen, where she was no longer able to access it. Koko was afraid she might break the mirror, and had given it back to assure its safety. She has done this sort of thing repeatedly.

Last week, I had the following dialogue with Koko, to see if I could get her to share her feelings about the concept of Earth Day. I didn't expect her to be too cooperative on the subject, but . . .

Penny: What should people do to save the Earth?
Koko: People have (to) hurry!

Penny: What do we tell people to do for the Earth?
Koko: Smile (then) Frown (then) Sad.

I'll leave the interpretation of her last remarks to you.

Finally, to end on a positive note, here's Koko's view of the creator:

Penny: Who made the earth?
Koko: Another lip. (“lip” is the sign Koko uses to refer to women, because they often use lipstick)

Obviously, Koko thinks the world is in good hands.
Can we prove her right?

. . . Penny
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Research/Care Blog

Koko Celebrates 31

The Traditional Walk

Date Added: 2002-07-04
An early morning walk in the fog, special drinks, a peanut butter sandwich, chocolate, gifts. Birthday wishes fulfilled on July 4, 2002--Hanabi-Ko (Fireworks Child in Japanese) had a wonderful birthday celebration in Woodside CA. Koko specifically requested the drinks, sandwich and chocolate when asked what she wanted for her birthday, using signs from her extensive vocabulary. She also asked for “surprises.” The walk on the 6-acre Gorilla Foundation grounds is a birthday tradition.

On the walk, we encountered several baby banana slugs. When I commented, “The endangered banana slug,” Koko signed “Shame.” Koko seems to be aware that endangered is not a good thing to be.

Her favorite gift was a new bed. “Koko-love!” she exclaimed on seeing her Little Tykes® bed set, complete with fuschia sheets, pillows and a teddy bear. And love it she does. Koko spent most of the afternoon on her new bed (new to Koko; it was acquired at the Woodside Church rummage sale). When it was time to go out to the play yard, she took the foam mattress with her! Back inside for bedtime, she left her bed only to get her night treat and to use the toilet.

Sweet dreams, Koko.

. . . Penny

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Research/Care Blog

Koko Wants to Have a Baby

Koko Signs BABY

Date Added: 2002-05-26
Mother's Day always accentuates the fact that Koko's greatest wish is to have a baby of her own. We've known this for years, as she often signs the word BABY (see photo at left) and carries her gorilla dolls the way gorilla mothers carry their babies. She even pretends that her baby dolls can sign by molding their arms and hands in play or in response to questions..

Koko also treats her kittens as if they were surrogate babies. For example, in the video clip: ***Koko and Moe” you can see Koko wrapping a visiting kitten (Moe) in a pink blanket, and holding Moe while repeatedly making the sign BABY, with increasing emphasis.

People often ask why Koko has never had a baby, what it would take for her to have a baby now, and how much time she has to make it happen. Let me try to answer all three of these questions here.
  1. Koko has lived with two male gorillas most of her life, Michael (who passed away in 2000) and Ndume. Michael and Koko grew up together and developed a sibling relationship. Ndume came to live with Koko when they were both teenagers (she selected him from a video), and hence was considered a much more likely mate. Although Koko and Ndume do get along very well and spend lots of time together, Koko has still not initiated mating. We attribute this to two major factors: a) the natural ratio of females to males in a gorilla family structure is not one to one, but usually three or more females to one male, and b) more privacy and natural habitat are needed— the facility in Northern California is just not private or warm enough to provide the ideal conditions for raising a family.

  2. Koko and Ndume's move to Maui (anticipated in 2003 if we meet our fundraising goals) will solve the privacy and natural habitat problem, and increase the chances of acquiring female companions, as the Maui Ape Preserve will be an ideal place for other gorillas needing a home.

  3. Koko will be 31 on July 4, 2002. Female gorillas in captivity can live into their fifties, and have babies into their early forties but, as with humans, there are increased risks associated with postponed childbearing. Adoption of a gorilla baby is another possibility. And yes, we have tried artificial insemination, but this technique is rarely sucessful with gorillas. In-vitro fertilization has had some limited success with gorillas, but it is dangerous because of the multiple anesthesias required. Natural conception seems to be the most desirable solution for Koko.
I hope that by next Mother's Day we will be much closer to establishing the proper conditions for Koko to become a mother and pass on sign language to her offspring. The sooner we can make this happen, the more time Koko will have to enjoy her family.

. . . Penny

Research/Care Blog

A Sensitive Male

Lovable Ndume

Date Added: 2002-08-11
Ndume is Koko's male gorilla companion. For those of you who don't know, Ndume came from the Cincinnati Zoo in 1991 to live with Koko, by Koko's own choice (the gorilla version of video dating). He is 10 years younger than Koko (he'll turn 21 in October) and they get along splendidly.

Ndume is an intelligent and sensitive soul, genuinely concerned for those around him, especially Koko.

The following recent transcripts illustrate these qualities, and also show that Ndume uses and invents signs, unaided by the humans who taught Koko this gestural language.


Koko has not been feeling well and has spent the past few days inside. Today, she comes out to the play yard. I kiss to Koko. Ndume glances over at her.
PENNY: I think Koko needs a kiss, Ndume.
NDUME: Purr.
Then Ndume runs past Koko, directing a clap to me as he goes and then signs,
NDUME: Stink.

I suggest to Koko that Ndume might kiss her and she nods. Then I propose that we kiss Ndume and ask Koko if I should try.
Ndume makes a kiss.
I praise him and he purrs and kisses more.
PENNY: Kisses are so nice.
NDUME: Mine.
PENNY: Ndume is wonderful today, talking to you, Koko.
Ndume and Koko purr alternately.

PENNY: I bet Koko would like to squeeze Ndume, it would be fun (voice only).
NDUME: Purr, squeeze. (Ndume invents this sign: he squeezes and tugs at the skin on his chest in the nipple area).


Koko goes out this morning but instead of socializing and foraging, she climbs up onto a shelf, reclines on her back, and stays there. This is very unusual behavior and I tell Ndume that “Koko is not feeling well today.” Ndume runs over to where she is and throws a magazine up her way, getting it halfway up to the shelf. Koko sits up and scratches herself persistently. After I tell Koko that I can get lotions and creams to help her, Ndume comes back over. I explain to him,
PENNY: Koko's not feeling quite right, her teeth are not right and she does not feel like eating, at least that's our best guess; maybe she will tell us what's wrong (voice only).
NDUME: Sorry.
PENNY: Oh what a sweet boy!
NDUME: Kiss.
KOKO: Purr.
PENNY: He's a sweet boy, says he's sorry you're not feeling well, Koko.

A little later, I bring two drinks. I give one to Koko who is still on the shelf, and offer one to Ndume. He does not come over for it; this has never happened before.
PENNY: I can give it to Koko if you like.
NDUME: Yes (small nod).
I give the water to Koko, who signs
KOKO: Give-me.
PENNY: He's a wonderful gentleman!
Ndume looks back at us,
PENNY: Yes he is!
Koko drinks the second bottle of water. I tell Koko,
PENNY: Remember how you gave Joanne a drink when she had a sick stomach? Well, Ndume is doing the same for you. He is very nice.
NDUME: Assent vocalization.
PENNY: He's very thoughtful of you when you're not feeling good. We hope you get better very quickly.

Koko is recovering nicely and Ndume and Koko have been playing chase games with the dogs, Koko taking the initiative with Raven, a Standard Poodle, and Ndume taking the lead with Max, a Staffordshire Terrier. Ndume, in his characteristically thoughtful manner, has been selecting the doggie dumbbell toy during recent sessions. It happens to be Raven's favorite fetch toy.

Koko and Ndume

Ndume and Koko look forward to a future together at the Maui Preserve.


Research/Care Blog

Gorillas Just Wanna Have Fun

Penny Tickling Koko

Date Added: 2002-09-26
An ethologist colleague, Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D., wrote recently requesting material for his book on animal pleasure. He believes that such a book would strengthen society's sense of moral responsibility toward other animals. DeeAnn Draper, a gorilla caregiver and food preparation manager, submitted the following observations and I wanted to share them with you:

'The obvious and continuous demonstrations of gorilla pleasure occur at the anticipation or sight of food. The more subtle, non-food-involved demonstrations of pleasure usually have to do with play behavior or, in Koko's and Michael's case, laughter at funny or fun activities or situations.

'Gorillas can laugh uncontrollably when they are tickled (see Koko photo). Ndume purrs when I scratch his back.

'In my mind, I often replay an exchange Ndume and I had, just sitting in his room. Ndume has quite a sense of fun. I was sitting in the hall while he sat in his B room. Both of us had our backs to the west wall. We were looking at each other sideways, when I quickly did a head turn and looked straight ahead. I slowly turned my head back toward Ndume, and noticed a slight grin on his face. Then he did a quick head turn to look straight ahead, his grin widening. I copied him. We slowly turned back toward each other, his grin now a smile. We repeated this twice more, each time his smile got bigger. The last time we turned back toward each other, he purred and stomped his feet on the ground.

'While playing with Michael indoors, we would often play tug or a little game of chase. He was a completely different gorilla indoors in comparison to his demeanor outdoors. Outdoors he was in charge, often patrolling the yards, alert to any noises in the surrounding forest, road or even the houses across the road. In other words, he was serious and on the job. He would play chase with us and be a little playful, but nothing in comparison with his indoor behavior.

'Indoors, Michael would feed one end of a blanket to us through the mesh. He would only pull on the blanket as hard as the person on the other end. Of course he could easily take the blanket if he wanted to, but the game lasted much longer if he showed restraint - and he did. I remember one indoor play session in particular that started like many others, with a game of tug. Michael gave me one end of a soft blanket, then started his play invitation/enjoyment gesture - ‘bite-palm.’ His various play invitation/enjoyment gestures were: sham chewing on the heel of his hand, on his thumb, on his wrist or even the back of his hand occasionally. He really got into the game that day, tugging and chewing, chewing and tugging. Then he started to laugh. He laughed continuously for about 10 minutes as we tugged. He got me laughing and we fed off each other's joyous mood for quite some time. This is the type of behavior that most people, even people who work with gorillas for years, never see.

'Koko has another dimension to her enjoyment. Since Koko understands English as well as sign language, she has fun with sounds. She likes rhyming poetry, makes plays on words (ie. Koko + nut = coconut) and makes jokes (ie. putting a straw to her nose and calling herself a ‘thirsty elephant’). She also laughs at slap-stick humor (eg, we do something clumsy like trip or drop something). She always seems to get a chuckle out of us making comments about Ndume (or Michael) getting into trouble.'

DeeAnn's observations seem especially resonant to me today, after just returning from the ChimpanZoo Conference, where I and several other ape language and behavior researchers compared notes and reports about the propensity of apes to play. This is clearly something we have in common with the other great apes, and the more we observe them, the more we remember what's really important in life.


PS: Stay tuned for a funny little video clip featuring Koko and me playing. We'll put a link on this page, the homepage and on KokoTV, when it's ready.

Research/Care Blog

Koko Makes a Halloween Mask

Koko's Halloween Mask (“Eye Hat”)

Date Added: 2002-10-30
Occasionally, members write to us concerned that some of the things that Koko and Ndume do, such as donning whimsical headdresses, subtract from their dignity. Both gorillas, especially Koko are highly perceptive of, and responsive to, holiday traditions much as human children are, and want to participate. As Halloween was approaching one year, Koko actually fashioned a mask (without any prompting at all) from a gayly colored sheet of paper by carefully making eyeholes. Then, holding it up to her face, she used it to scare her human companion by charging over to her thus disguised. Such object use by the gorillas is a reflection of their creativity, playfulness and complex psychological makeup as gorilla persons.

Koko with Lei, Penny with Cat Costume
Recently, from a bag of costume accessories, Ron selected and wore a black feather boa, and Koko a flowered lei. I donned a cat mask, and meowed asking Koko “Who am I?” She steadfastly ignored my question, so we went about our play.

I showed Koko some fake cat whiskers, mentioning that the attachment was too tight to be placed on her nose, and put them to my ear suggesting use as an earring. As the videotape rolled, and I looked away from Koko, she signed “Cat that that” first to my black mask, then to the cat whiskers she tucked fashionably over her right ear.

It's amazing how much we would miss about Koko if it weren't for video technology, which allows us to catch her signing side comments to herself and the camera. We should definitely use more of this technology in the future, especially at the Maui Sanctuary, to record our research from multiple angles and share it with other researchers and educators via the internet.


PS: See Koko being really silly and intelligent at the same time, on our new version of ***KokoTV.

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