Koko, the Gorilla Who Mastered Sign Language, Dies at 46

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The Gorilla Foundation announced the passing of Koko, the famous gorilla who learned how to communicate using sign language. Koko, who was 46, died in her sleep on Tuesday morning. Born at the San Francisco Zoo on the Fourth of July in 1971, she was originally given the birth name Hanabi-Ko, which is Japanese for “fireworks child.”

The Gorilla Foundation said, “Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world.” Koko made headlines around the world throughout her life with her incredible ability to learn and understand the intricacies of language.

By the time Koko was 1 years old, she began learning how to communicate via sign language. Her instructor, famed animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson reported that Koko was able to understand over 1,000 signs in a language she dubbed as “Gorilla Sign Language.” In addition, she was introduced to the English language simultaneously, eventually understanding more than 2,000 words.

Koko lived an exciting and thrilling life, filled with love from those who met her. She was featured in National Geographic, with the cover being a picture she took of herself in the mirror. She made friends with several celebrities, including Robin Williams. Upon meeting him, Koko tried on his glasses, playing around and trying to get him to tickle her. They made faces at each other, and Koko event signaled that she recognized from a movie she watched that he was in.  When hearing of his death in 2014, Koko seemed visibly upset.

In 1982, Koko asked her handlers for a cat for Christmas, so she was given a stuffed animal. This displeased Koko, who would not play with it, so her handlers brought her a litter of kittens on her birthday, and was told she could pick one. She chose a gray and white kitten and named it “All Ball” and treated the kitten like it was her own child. In an 1985 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Ron Cohn, a biologist with the Gorilla Foundation said, “They would play chase with each other and she (Koko) would hold it and pet it.”

Six months later, All Ball escaped and was hit by a car and killed. When told about her beloved kittens passing, she continually signed “bad” and “sad” and made whimpering noises when she was left alone. However, Koko would go on to have several other kittens in her life after All Ball.

While an incredible living being in her own right, Koko brought joy and kindness to the world, and taught us so much about the deeper connection between humans and primates. She showed that despite us not speaking the same language, we were still connected through empathy and the emotions that reside within us, and the memories she left us with will last many lifetimes.

Avid writer and reader with a curious mind. I'm always looking to get the most out of life! Follow me on Twitter @whatsaschoon

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