History & Milestones


The Gorilla Foundation was founded in 1976, based on the results of a unique interspecies communication study with gorillas began in 1972, by founder Dr. Francine Penny Patterson:


Project Koko has evolved into much more than just an “ape language” project!  As we began to learn how much like us gorillas are emotionally and cognitively, we also learned how gorillas (and other great apes) in Africa were becoming critically endangered and hence our focus has shifted from pure research to applied research for the benefit of both captive and free-living gorillas (and other great apes).



Koko is born on July 4 at the San Francisco Zoo. The name Hanabi-Ko, meaning “Fireworks Child” in Japanese, is selected as the winner of the “name the baby gorilla” contest


“Project Koko” begins. Francine (Penny) Patterson, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, begins working with Koko at the San Francisco Zoo, initiating the first-ever project to study the linguistic capabilities of the gorillas.


“Project Koko” moves from the San Francisco Children’s’ Zoo to its very own trailer (still in use today) on zoo grounds.


Koko relocates from the San Francisco Zoo to a compound located on the Stanford University campus, paving the way for an expansion of Penny and Koko’s pioneering collaboration.


Dr. Patterson, Dr. Ronald H. Cohn and the late Barbara F. Hiller establish The Gorilla Foundation. Through the efforts of the Foundation, Penny and Ron obtain custody of Koko in 1977, ensuring that their fruitful partnership can continue.

Michael, a bushmeat orphan from Cameroon, is given a home by the Gorilla Foundation. A welcome companion and possible future mate for Koko, Michael also receives sign language instruction and expands the scope of the Foundation’s language and behavioral studies.

In recognition of the pioneering work being done by Koko and Penny, National Geographic Society awards a grant to Dr. Patterson for the study of linguistic behavior and higher cognitive functioning in the gorilla.


“The Pursuit of Reason”—a landmark article on interspecies communication and animal rights by Harold T. Hayes, featuring the work of The Gorilla Foundation—is published in the New York Times Magazine, bringing international attention to Koko and Penny’s groundbreaking studies.

Dian Fossey, renowned mountain gorilla researcher, visits Koko, who is impressed with Dian’s demonstration of gorilla vocalizations.


Dr. Patterson becomes the first woman to receive the Rolex Award for Enterprise honoring her studies of communication and higher cognitive functioning in the gorilla.

“Conversations with a Gorilla” is published in National Geographic (154, (4)).

Dr. Jane Goodall visits The Gorilla Foundation to share information concerning the

great apes.  After returning to Africa, Dr. Goodall writes asking if Koko can provide her with some information to help with her research on wild chimpanzees – surely a first in primate research.

Koko, a Talking Gorilla (a 90-minute documentary film) is produced by Barbet Schroeder and shown at the Cannes Film Festival.  Chronicling the seminal years of Project Koko, the film furthers international understanding of the true nature of gorillas.


The Gorilla Foundation moves from Stanford to the forested highlands of Woodside, California, in order to provide a more protected environment for Koko and Michael.

Morley Safer features Koko on 60 Minutes.


Gorilla Foundation Advisory Board is formed. Members include Jane Goodall and Melvin M. Payne.

The documentary Gorilla (which features the work of The Gorilla Foundation) is released by National Geographic and aired on public television stations nationwide. It eventually is made part of The Best of the National Geographic series.


Work is completed on the gorillas’ 250-square-foot indoor facility addition and 676-square-foot outdoor play yard, providing greater opportunities for gorillas to interact, and to experience many new enrichment activities.

The Education of Koko, a book documenting the early years and discoveries of Project Koko, is published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Dr. Patterson participates in a landmark international symposium (along with Drs. Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas), at Sweet Briar College in Virginia exploring the state of research on the great apes


Apple, a Landseer Newfoundland puppy, joins the Gorilla Foundation family.  Michael, who is becoming renowned for his creativity, immortalizes him in a painting, “Apple Chase,” which depicts Apple engaged in one of his favorite pastimes – chasing Mike!


Koko becomes fascinated by the tiny tree frogs that inhabit her yard.  She captures one, and delicately cradles it under her arm, protecting it from Michael.  After carrying it around for a while, she places it on some rocks in her yard, under a tub to further shield it from possible rough play.  It is an outstanding example of Koko’s innate gentleness and nurturing spirit towards small, vulnerable creatures, and her regard for other species.


The tenth anniversary of NOVA premieres with Signs of the Apes, Songs of the Whales highlighted by the work of The Gorilla Foundation.

The Gorilla Foundation sponsors an exhibition of gorilla-created artwork in Honolulu in order to raise public awareness about the Foundation and its goals in Hawaii, where the Foundation hopes to establish a gorilla preserve.

Koko selects the tailless kitten All Ball to be her very own companion.


Koko’s Kitten, immortalizing the relationship between Koko and her kitten All Ball, and destined to become a classic of children’s literature, is published by Scholastic Books and featured on the PBS series Reading Rainbow.

National Geographic publishes the cover story “Koko’s Kitten” (167,1), featuring the iconic image of Koko cradling All Ball

An interview with Dr. Patterson is aired during the National Public Radio program, “As It Happens.”

Koko and Michael are featured with Hugh Downs on 20/20.  Hugh Downs subsequently cites this as the most memorable interview of his career.


Time magazine selects Dr. Ron Cohn’s photo of Koko cradling All Ball as a “Picture of the Year 1985.”

Koko and her kitten are featured in the 1986 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.

The Dakin toy company brings out two “plush” Koko stuffed animals—one life-size.

The Gorilla Foundation pursues serious negotiations and fundraising toward the establishment of a large-scale gorilla preserve in Hawaii.


Koko’s Story, a children’s book liberally illustrated with photos, telling the story of Koko’s early life, is published.


William Shatner teams up with Koko to publicize a program under which Californians can help their state’s endangered species by donating money through a check-off on their state tax forms.

Koko features in the cover story of the March 4, 1988, edition of ComputorEdge magazine, “Gorilla at the Keyboard.”

Discover magazine features a look at our attempts to help Koko start her family with an article in the August issue entitled “Sex and the Single Gorilla.”


Koko’s Kitten is dramatized and released as a video production.


Gorilla Foundation representatives make presentations at the Columbus Zoo Gorilla Workshop, the American Society of Primatologists, and the Institute of Animal Assisted Therapy.

One chapter of the book Gorillas by Sara Godwin (Mallard Press) is devoted to Koko and Michael.

National Geographic, November 1990provides an update on Koko.

A display of artwork produced by Koko and Michael is exhibited at the Gerard Gallery in Half Moon Bay, CA.


Ndume, a 10-year-old male gorilla, arrives at The Gorilla Foundation from the Cincinnati Zoo. Selected by Koko through viewing videos of available male companions, Ndume has already fathered 3 children and is viewed as a potential mate for Koko.


Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail and Macworld magazine publish articles about Koko and her new “gorilla-proof” voice computer.


The Gorilla Foundation signs a long-term nominal lease for 70 acres of land on Maui from Maui Land and Pineapple Company. The House of Representatives of the State of Hawaii welcomes The Gorilla Foundation to Hawaii with a formal resolution and recognizes it for protecting and preserving gorillas and other endangered species.


Koko and her computer are featured in Weekly Reader.

Koko and Dr. Patterson are included in a CD-ROM entitled The Discoverers.

Koko and Michael are featured in a 17-minute United Learning video, Animal Intelligence, which helps children learn about the abilities of animals.


The Gorilla Foundation and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners receive merit award from S. F. Advertising Club for our public service announcement, which made history, as Koko became the first nonhuman to actually do the ‘talking’ in a television commercial.

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners produce the Foundation’s 13-minute overview documentary FromCalifornia to Hawaii pro bono.

Koko’s Kitten is reproduced in Braille.

48 Hours features Koko in ‘Talk to the Animals.’


National and international media feature Koko as she celebrates her 25th birthday with a non-fat gourmet party and gifts from well-wishers across the country.

Koko’s niece, Binti Jua, makes international news when she helps a young boy who fell into the gorilla compound at the Brookfield Zoo. Koko comments about Binti Jua’s actions: ‘Lip (meaning ‘girl’) good.’

Gorilla Foundation Internet home page established at http://www.koko.org.


The Gorilla Foundation celebrates 25th anniversary.

Koko’s Kitten, translated into French, begins to be distributed in Cameroon under a project initiated by Dr. Tony Rose, conservation director for The Gorilla Foundation, focusing on conservation values education to deepen local people’s feelings for the wildlife around them and to stop the killing of apes for bushmeat.

Dr. Patterson chosen as a 1997 Kilby Foundation Laureate honoring her 25 years of dedicated study of primate linguistic abilities.

Gorilla artwork shown at the Terrain Gallery in San Francisco.


Koko makes history with first interspecies chat on the Internet, sponsored by America Online, The Envirolink Network, and H.E.A.V.E.N. Chat becomes fifth largest in Internet history.

Fred Rogers, Koko’s favorite TV personality, airs his visit with Koko on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Organic cotton T-shirts with reproductions of Koko’s artwork go on sale to benefit The Gorilla Foundation.

Dr. Patterson is featured speaker at the Earth-Maui Nature Summit and the Third International Conference on Great Apes of the World held in Malaysia.

Wildlife Protectors Fund (WPF) is established in response to the bushmeat crisis. Headed by Dr.

Tony Rose, Gorilla Foundation director of conservation, the Fund is dedicated to supporting Gorilla Foundation projects in Africa to combat the bushmeat trade, including conservation values education.


New NATURE documentary: “A Conversation with Koko” airs on PBS stations around the country. This documentary is the first comprehensive overview of Project Koko, as told by Koko herself. It becomes one of PBS’ most highly watched programs. The conclusion focuses on our plans to build a new gorilla sanctuary and visitor center on Maui, in order to save the species from extinction by allowing Koko to play the role of “ambassador” for her species and for the rainforests that we all depend upon.

The book Koko-Love—Conversations with a Gorilla is published by Dutton and released as a companion book to the NATURE documentary, “A Conversation with Koko.”

Dr. Patterson is a featured speaker at the Ninth Annual Conference of Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED), addressing a large audience of the world’s most successful business people, entrepreneurs and innovators, in Monterey, CA. Her talk is entitled “Project Koko and the Maui Preserve.”

Dr. Patterson presents a paper entitled “Words and Pictures: Use of Symbolic Communication by Two Western Lowland Gorillas” at the Conference on Evolution in Kyoto, Japan.


Dr. Patterson and the PBS/NATURE Documentary (“A Conversation with Koko”) are winners at the 14th annual Genesis Awards, sponsored by the Ark Trust. This annual event pays tribute to media productions that promote animal protection and stewardship of the planet. The other guest of honor is Karl Amman, a legendary photographer who has risked his life in Central Africa to reveal the true story of the “bushmeat” crisis, in which gorillas like Koko and other great apes are being eaten into extinction as an exotic food source, fueled by the foreign logging trade.

Dr. Patterson is publicly interviewed by U.C. Berkeley neurobiologist Dr. Walter Freedman at the Wonderfest 2000 conference on “Animal Consciousness: Self Awareness in the Great Apes” at Stanford University.

Michael the gorilla, age 28, passes away in April as a result of congestive heart failure.


Maui Preserve Groundblessing and initial construction begin.

Michael Sanctuary for orphaned (bushmeat) gorillas opens in Cameroon, Africa.

Dr. Patterson participates in “The Kilby Interactive Broadcast Series: Extraordinary Role Models for the 21st Century Student” in Palo Alto, CA.

Koko.org expands into e-commerce and education via KokoMart and KokoTV.


Koko Music CD: “Fine Animal Gorilla,” a collection of music about Koko with her own words as some of the lyrics, is produced and released by the Laurel Canyon Animal Company.

Koko and Leonardo DiCaprio film a video for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF) Europe, of which Leo is a patron, for showing at a gala held by DFGF-Europe in London to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the scientific discovery of the mountain gorilla.

Dr. Patterson is a featured guest of The Commonwealth Club of California, at DeAnza College in Cupertino, during which she is interviewed by Holly Brady, Director of the Stanford Publishing Course. The title of her conversational presentation is: “From California to Hawaii.”

Dr. Patterson is a featured speaker at the Chimpanzoo Conference, Sacramento, CA, along with Jane Goodall and Dr. Lyn Miles. Dr. Patterson presents highlights of her work with Koko, Ndume and Michael and also meets with other ape language and behavior researchers to discuss future collaboration.


The Gorilla Foundation expands its outreach in Africa by collaborating with the Peace Corps in Cameroon.

Michael Crichton, acclaimed author and visionary, joins the Gorilla Foundation Board of Directors. Dr. Crichton’s 1980 book Congo was inspired by Koko.

The Gorilla Foundation partners with Apple Computer’s online “Apple Learning Interchange” to offer KokoTV, educational video content about Koko and conservation, as a resource for school curriculum development.

Smoky, Koko’s beloved feline companion for over 18 years, passes away.

The Gorilla Foundation launches a public service campaign on TV, radio and in print featuring Koko and celebrity Robin Williams, honorary co-chair of the Maui Ape Preserve campaign, to raise awareness of the need to act to save gorillas from extinction.


Koko reports that she has a toothache, uses a pain chart to convey the severity of the problem, and requests a doctor. After a full medical exam and gum surgery performed by a team of Stanford doctors, she receives a clean bill of health.

Dr. Patterson gives the keynote lecture at the California Science Education Conference.

Dr. Patterson and Koko give the first interspecies IMAX videoconference presentation to the At- Bristol Museum in England.

Betty White, renowned actor and animal advocate, joins the Gorilla Foundation Board of Directors.

Yahoo.co.uk names The Gorilla Foundation website, koko.org, winner of the Yahoo! Search “Finds of the Year 2004” award as “Best Pets and Animals Website.”


Project Koko becomes the subject of students’ National History Day projects across the country, as one of this year’s themes is Communication. Students email interview questions for Dr. Patterson and create elaborate displays for their classes about the significance of Project Koko—and conservation through communication.


Paper published with Dr. Joanne Tanner on the discovery that gorillas seem to have their own natural gestural (or “sign”) language, and that this may facilitate their learning a human sign language such as ASL.

Gorilla Art Exhibit launched at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas.

Koko’s first sitting with the British Royal Family’s famed portrait artist, Richard Stone.


Gorilla Foundation researchers present at numerous conferences around the world about the benefits of teaching great apes sign language to improve their welfare in captivity.  A new sign language tutorial database, called ZEST (Zoo Enrichment Signing Tutorial), developed by The Gorilla Foundation is introduced to help other great ape facilities benefit from 2-way communication between apes and caregivers.


The Gorilla Foundation is welcomed as a member of the American Sanctuary Association.

Dr. Anthony Rose comes on board full-time as The Gorilla Foundation’s volunteer Director of Conservation.

KokoTeach, an interactive curriculum development tool for teachers, is launched, allowing Ambassador Koko to come into the classroom to teach everything from sign language and reading to conservation and math.


In honor of the Year of the Gorilla, the Foundation presents the Wildlife Protectors’ Award to Denis Ndeloh Etiendem of Cameroon to allow him to pursue field research on the Cross River gorilla, the most seriously endangered gorilla subspecies.  The project goal is to develop a conservation plan for this species, whose native range is the border area between Cameroon and Nigeria.

15,000 copies of the mini-Koko’s Kitten book are distributed to schools and community groups in Cameroon, as part of the Conservation Values Education outreach program to raise awareness.  


The dramatization of Koko’s Kitten is released in DVD format.Koko acquires a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a channel on YouTube to better communicate with all her friends and fans.

A change in management at Maui Land & Pineapple Company makes it clear that the original “lease” of 70 acres for the Maui Ape Preserve is not a sufficiently secure mechanism for a permanent sanctuary for gorillas.  Hence an assessment of the land — plus an expanded, concentric 350-acre site — for “purchase” is performed.  The purchase price (at least several million dollars) would make it necessary to mount a second capital campaign.  Hence the project is put on hold until the Foundation is able to establish the development team necessary to complete such an expanded and extended  campaign.  The interim focus shifts to making the Woodside gorilla facility as comfortable as possible for gorillas Koko and Ndume, using some of the design enhancements developed initially for the Maui Ape Preserve.  The Foundation remains open to partnerships with other great ape institutions that would like to share the land for the benefit of great apes.


The Gorilla Foundation hires Dr. Ken Gold, world-renowned gorilla behavior expert as its Managing Director of Gorilla Care and Research.  This frees up more time for Drs. Penny Patterson and Ron Cohn to focus on gorilla care and communication research with gorillas Koko and Ndume.


The Gorilla Foundation begins to work more closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and its associated Gorilla Species Survival Program (SSP) to create a strategic partnership beneficial to Koko, Ndume and gorillas as a species.

World-renowned gorilla experts, Drs. Terry Maple and Joseph Erwin, begin work as consultants for the Gorilla Foundation, to help improve its business and management infrastructure in order to take Project Koko and all 4 of its programs — research, conservation, care and education — to the next level synergistically.

The Gorilla Foundation’s new website, Koko.org 3.0, planned for several years, finally launches, well before Koko’s 43rd birthday on July 4th.



New documentary, Koko, the Gorilla who Talks, produced by BBC, is released on both BBC and PBS stations. The documentary describes the personal side of Project Koko and evokes empathy from the public for lifelong commitment that both Penny and Koko have made for the sake of a mission that extends far beyond the two of them — to save all of the great ape species from unnecessary extinction, and to enable a new era of interspecies enrichment fueled by the simple power of a shared language.



The first prototype of the new Koko App is created with the help of an experienced team of educational software developers.  The Koko App has the potential to teach millions of people and hundreds of captive great apes to learn to sign with Koko, and multiply the number of great ape ambassadors in the world, so that Koko is not the only one.  A powerful new concept emerges in parallel with the new app, that “all gorillas are Kokos” — at least potentially.


The Gorilla Foundation also initiates a new mobile-device-friendly website, Koko.org 3.0