On June 21, 2018, the incredible Koko, a lowland gorilla who mastered the complexities of sign language, sadly passed away, leaving the scientific community and humanity in general, mourning her loss.
The 46 year-old gorilla was an icon in the animal world even in her youth, being a celebrity in her own right from the time she was born and was featured twice in the cover of National Geographic. She was the poster-child for animal welfare and a beacon for people who sought for the better understanding of how humans should interact with them.
Koko stayed relevant even in her later years. In 2016, she collaborated with popular rock band, Red Hot Chili Peppers, learning how to play bass with musician Flee on Instagram.
The Gorilla Foundation acknowledged Koko’s valuable importance and underscored how she taught us that apes like her had intelligence and that the lessons she imparted will continue to shape the world.
It was her ability to master sign language that she was known for with the help of Dr. Francine Patterson who taught Koko how to communicate with simple words and phrases as a young gorilla. Koko went on to learn and formulate her own signs for 1000 words and master an estimated 2000 English words. The relationship between Dr. Patterson and Koko spanned the entire length of the amazing animal’s life.
The amazing complexities of Koko’s emotional abilities were seen in the interactions she had with other humans. One particular human she had and affinity for was the late Robin Williams, who described the time he spent with her as “a mind altering experience.” This sentiment was shared by Koko herself, having become familiar with the comedian over the years. News of his passing, relayed to her in sign language, turned her visibly emotional.
Other evidences that Koko assimilated human behaviour was when she asked for a pet kitten as a present for Christmas in 1984. She was given a stuffed animal but what she really wanted was the real thing. When she finally received her much anticipated gift 365 days later, the cat bit her after which signed “obnoxious cat.”
More than her celebrity, it was Koko’s contribution to science, communication and the understanding of animals that has left a profound impact to human kind. In addition to these, her effect on ordinary people that led them to show more empathy and compassion to other creatures has gradually improved the relationship between humans and animals as we learn more about the wonderful world we live in.