Koko’s Reaction to the Crisis; Part 1

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A few days after the September 11 tragedy, Joanne Tanner, a volunteer who has known Koko for many years, visited the foundation. She was so moved after her visit with Koko that she wrote the following letter, which I’d like to share with all of you. “I spent the afternoon with Koko on Sunday, September 16, 2001. The events of the past week affected me deeply as they did every American. In my case, I have a son in New York who rides the A Train from Brooklyn under the World Trade Center daily. I finally heard from him 7 hours after the September 11th disaster. The anxiety I experienced that day was profound. On this Sunday, Koko experienced a great deal of stress. I was struck by how touchingly similar her expression of anxiety was to that of humans, using my own recent feelings as a base of comparison. I did not think that Koko knew about our recent human tragedy, though Penny later told me that in spite of caution in shielding her from it, she has most likely overheard conversations between workers and some news coverage. It is also likely that she has sensed the moods of those near her. In any case, she has never liked sirens and is always disturbed to some extent by them. “Koko began to get upset at loud sirens from emergency vehicles traversing the mountain road outside her facility; eventually some helicopters or planes were heard overhead too. I never found out what the cause was, but there are often motorcycle accidents on weekends, or there could have been a fire somewhere nearby. The culmination of her anxiety was high pitched crying followed by chestbeating, charging and banging a wall. There were many bouts of this sequence. But what came in between these displays was also moving. This included going to the toilet 4 times; first refusing food but later eating only “comfort food” (a peanut butter sandwich); wanting the TV off then on; wanting to look outside by going onto her chute but then wanting to be safely closed in her room with all drapes and the chute to the outdoors closed; building a barricade of her tubs and hiding with her head low behind it; but most touching of all was that before each charge she would pick up a stuffed toy, hold it tight, and kiss it; in some cases two toys, and sometimes a kiss and a big hug with the toy enfolded in her arms. The toys she chose for this were three kinds of stuffed cats, a lion, a black and white kitty, and the favorite, a funny yellow and black striped tiger. “I realized later that I went through all these behaviors myself this week. I went from being unable to eat to wanting to stuff with comfort food. I would want the TV off but later couldn’t resist having it back on. I made extra trips to the toilet. I wanted to just stay home in a cocoon, but when I heard planes overhead I had to go out to look. And even the stuffed kitties… Tuesday night my husband and I went out to escape the TV and tension and ended up at Marini’s, a Santa Cruz beach ice cream and candy shop that also sells all kinds of toys and Beanie Babies. I fell in love with a Beanie black panther and bought it and kept it with me all evening in my hand. When I went to bed I propped it up on top of my pillow as a little guardian angel or protector icon. Yes, I may have been reverting to childhood or going soft in the head- but it really made me feel better. Not to mention also wanting the comfort and company of our three real live companion cats. Finally, the second day of the disaster, I cried. “Eventually the sirens subsided and Koko gradually calmed down and ate the other “non comfort” vegetables and fruits in her meal. My visit to Koko did not turn out, as I thought before I got there that day, to be a respite from our national anxiety. But it did turn out to be another illustration of the closeness of us humans and our great ape cousins. “Later in the week I saw a picture of a bereaved and grieving relative of someone lost in the disaster standing slumped over a barricade near the former World Trade Center – hugging two stuffed animals. How little separates us, not only in use of language but in our feelings.” Koko shows us her feelings in obvious ways. However, when we look closer at our actions, we see that our feelings are obvious too. Thank you, Joanne–in the process of expressing Koko and your feelings, you expressed my feelings too. Penny