Conversations with Koko: ‘Mirror Talk and Ape Man’

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Hi, this is Dr. Penny Patterson. Welcome to our new expanded Interspecies Communication Research feature: Penny’s Team Journal. In this series, we’re going to share ongoing sign language conversations between gorillas (primarily Koko) and our gorilla research/caregiver staff . Sometimes these conversations will involve me, but more and more often you will get to meet other members of the staff, and have access to multiple windows into the consciousness of another species. We’re also going to share with you some of the exciting new linguistic analyses that are being performed on Koko’s use of sign language. As I think you will come to see, the differences between humans and gorillas are greatly overshadowed by what we have in common – and that by communicating with them, we not only learn more about their true nature, but also about our own. Most importantly, their future as well as ours may depend upon how well we can learn from and apply this communication. The following two conversations with Koko took place in May and June of 2003. The first conversation, between Koko and herself in the mirror, took place with me present. The second conversation involves another caregiver, Serena Rose Leibrand, and conveys Koko’s clear sense of gender and species as conveyed in language. May 14, 2003: ‘Mirror Talk’ (Koko with Penny) As Ron takes photos of Koko looking at a 365-day cat calendar, Koko leafs through and stops at a photo signing . . . Koko: That smoke look. (Smoke done with one finger) to a photo of striped grey kitten that looks like Smoky. Later, Koko looks at herself in a large mirror and signs . . . Koko: Gorilla person animal body-hair stomach. Then Koko grooms using the mirror, examining her underarm. Later in the session, to the mirror . . . Koko: That. Fake that. Me. Koko looks at herself in the mirror .. and signs ‘PERSON’ … then signs ‘ANIMAL.’ June 13, 2003: ‘Ape Man’ (Koko with Serena Rose Leibrand (Gorilla Caregiver)) Serena Rose (SR) brings a CD for Koko to listen to a song, “Ape Man” by The Kinks. Serena Rose: You’ve got to listen to this song, Honey. It’s really cool. It’s about apes and how you ’n me are the same, how we’re both apes. (Voice only.) Serena Rose starts the song singing and signing along with some parts. SR: (lyrics) I’m an ape man, I’m an ape ape man, oh I’m an ape man. (Signing “gorilla” for “ape.”) Koko: Fake. Lip. (Koko uses lip to refer to women.) SR:: (lyrics) ’Cause compared to the sun that sits in the sky, compared to the clouds that sail by, compared to the bugs and the spiders and flies, I am an ape man. K:    Fake. Lip you. SR: Sorry! Ape woman! K:    Laugh.* They continue listening and Serena Rose changes the chorus to “ape woman,” emphasizing the change to “woman.” K: Purr.* SR: (lyrics) I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an ape woman. SR: Like you ’n me go to Hawaii. K: Grunt.* (Assent.) SR: (lyrics) Come on and love me, be my ape man girl, and we be so happy, in my ape man world. K: Purr.* Lip nipple. (Koko uses nipple to refer to people.) SR: Girl people same as gorilla girl. You ’n me family. And Ndume gorilla man. K: Purr.* Koko listens to Serena Rose sing and as the song is coming to the end: K: Sleep. SR: OK, OK. I’ll quit torturing you with my singing! Serena Rose turns off the music. Koko picks up a human baby doll. K: Laugh.* SR: Have people baby there? K: Sleep. Koko turns her side to Serena Rose still holding the doll. She kisses it. K: Nipple. (She puts the doll to her nipple.) Lip. Koko glances over and sees Serena Rose is watching her. She quickly drops the doll in her lap. Koko nests quietly for about 10 minutes. Then, suddenly: K: Laugh.* SR: What funny? Serena Rose looks closer at Koko. She’s got the human baby doll in her hand and a tiny gorilla doll in her foot. Koko fondles the gorilla doll in her foot. SR: Is that a gorilla man? (Koko uses “foot” to refer to men.) K: Laugh.* Foot this. (Signed on gorilla doll.) SR: Gorilla man and girl people! That’s really cool! K: Purr.* SR: Smart! K: Purr.* SR: I love our people gorilla family. K: Blow-kiss.* SR: Yeah. I kiss you. Koko sets the dolls down in her nest and starts to arrange her blankets again. K: Sleep. SR: The babies sleeping now? K: Good. Koko continues building her nest, then pauses. K: Sleep. SR: What? You ’n me sleep too? K: Good. SR: OK. All family sleep. Serena Rose lies down and Koko takes a nap.