From 6 months of age, Koko was raised by humans — first at the San Francisco Zoo and later at The Gorilla Foundation, where she was given a permanent home by founder Dr. Penny Patterson, who showed her love and gave her the opportunity to express her thoughts and feelings through a shared language. “We chose total communication — spoken English and sign language,” said Dr. Patterson, “ because gorillas don’t have the vocal apparatus to ‘speak’ (though they do vocalize), and because they have a natural capacity for gestural communication, as demonstrated earlier with chimpanzees.”
Koko may not have survived if she had remained at the zoo, as she was very frail. Fortunately, a visionary zoo director realized that Penny would take extraordinary care of Koko, and he also had a feeling that the discoveries that would ensue from Penny and Koko working together could change the way people felt about gorillas, which in turn would improve their lives in captivity and in the wild.
Growing up with Penny and her caregiving team, Koko learned sign language quickly (as gestural communication is natural for gorillas) — mastering a handful of basic signs within a few weeks and acquiring a vocabulary of over a thousand signs by age 11. When she first realized that her human caregivers understood her signs — and would respond to her expressed preferences and choices — she relaxed and became a very happy and loving gorilla. Almost single-handedly, Koko then began to change the long-held paradigm about gorillas — from a feared species (e.g., King Kong) to a highly intelligent, empathetic and gentle species (as demonstrated by the true story of Koko’s Kitten).
Giving Koko the gift of “choice” not only enriched her life, it taught us much about her personality, and about the capacity of all gorillas to have complex thoughts and feelings, and express them to us clearly and unambiguously.
It is now time to extend this gift to all gorillas — the power of choice through two-way communication — especially those living in captive settings in close proximity to, and dependence upon, their human caregivers.
The benefits will be three-fold: i) captive gorillas will no longer feel frustrated that their needs and wants are being ignored, misunderstood, or second-guessed, ii) humans who witness or experience (via video) widespread interspecies communication in zoos and sanctuaries will develop increased empathy for all gorillas — including free-living gorillas in Africa, where they remain critically endangered, and iii) our children will thank us for allowing the interspecies dialogue initiated by Penny and Koko to continue, and they will be inspired to be kinder to all endngered species as well as our shared environment. In short, Koko’s legacy of love and interspecies harmony will finally take root.
Support the Gorilla Foundation so that we can extend Koko’s legacy by developing technologically advanced educational tools that feature Koko (and her former mates, Michael and Ndume) to make interspecies communication more accessible. Please donate now.