In 2001, Robin Williams was invited to meet Koko, the gorilla who communicates in sign language, at The Gorilla Foundation in northern California (see photo above). We had no idea what to expect, but everyone was in for a treat, and they became very special friends.
On Monday, Aug. 11, the day news broke of Williams’ passing, Koko and Penny and Ron (Drs. Patterson and Cohn) were together when phone calls started coming in about the sad event. After the first call, Koko came to Dr. Patterson with an inquiring look on her face. Dr. Patterson explained that “we have lost a dear friend, Robin Williams.” Koko was quiet and looked very thoughtful (see photo bottom left).
More phone calls about the news came in, and Koko overheard one from a former colleague who had worked with Williams while he filmed a public service announcement for The Gorilla Foundation (based on his visit with Koko) in 2003. The colleague’s voice broke at the end of the conversation. About a half an hour later, Koko signed to Penny: “CRY LIP” (LIP is Koko’s sign for woman).
At the end of the day, Koko became very somber, with her head bowed and her lip quivering (see photo bottom right).
We at the Gorilla Foundation are all greatly saddened by the news of Robin William’s death, and would like to offer his family our deepest condolences. We would also like to honor his life, which was a profound gift to humanity — and to other great apes like Koko — by sharing the following video of Robin’s powerfully emotional meeting with Koko in 2001:
In the above video, notice that Robin made Koko smile — something she hadn’t done for over 6 months, ever since her lifelong gorilla companion, Michael, passed away at the age of 27. But not only did Robin cheer up Koko, the effect was mutual, and Robin seemed transformed — from a high-energy entertainer, into a mellow, sensitive, empathetic guy, who also just happened to be really funny.
Koko and Robin’s encounter is a supreme example of how humans and gorillas can overcome interspecies boundaries and express the highest form of empathy — embracing differences. Robin’s ability to just spend time with Koko, a gorilla, and in minutes become one of her closest friends, was extraordinary and unforgettable for Koko. We hope that it now becomes unforgettable for you too.
And when you remember Robin Williams, remember that he is not only one of the world’s most beloved entertainers, he is also one of the world’s most powerful ambassadors for great ape conservation.