Koko is perhaps the best known gorilla in the world because of her sign language and artistic abilities, her relationships with kittens, and a considerable amount of worldwide media since she was a baby. However, Koko is not the only gorilla that has mastered sign language (and art) — she has grown up with several equally interesting (and intelligent) friends. In this section, we introduce you to Koko and her extended family at The Gorilla Foundation, and contrast these “enculturated” gorillas with gorillas around the world.
When Penny Patterson, a young graduate student in psychology at Stanford, first saw a tiny, undernourished baby gorilla named Hanabi-Ko (which means “Fireworks Child” in Japanese) at the San Francisco Zoo, she had little inkling that the sickly ape would become her constant companion – and the subject of the longest continuous experiment ever undertaken to teach language to another species. But within a year, Project Koko was underway, and in two weeks the gorilla was using correct signed gestures for food, drink, and more. Today, four decades later, Koko has a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words.
Born on July 4th, 1971, Koko had a difficult life as a infant, became seriously ill, and had to be hand-reared by a caregiver, and later Penny, when she was rejected by our gorilla mother. Penny agreed to take care of Koko for at least a few years, and was allowed to teach her sign language as the focus of her PhD dissertation in developmental psychology at Stanford University. But Penny didn’t expect to develop such a strong emotional bond with Koko — nor that Koko was going to teach her so much about love. And so, what started out as 4-year commitment became a 4-decade (lifelong) relationship that changed the world — from viewing gorillas as huge, scary monsters (ala “King Kong”) to sensitive, empathetic beings much like us (think “Koko’s Kitten”).
Koko passed away on June 18, 2018, of natural causes, and the world will never be quite the same. Nevertheless, Koko’s Legacy lives on, with the help of The Gorilla Foundation, as it turns out that “all gorillas are Kokos” — and can benefit greatly from what we’ve learned from Koko.