Recently, the world lost one of its most beloved animal celebrities. Hanabiko, more popularly known as Koko, was a female lowland gorilla, who first made waves by communicating with humans using a modified version of American Sign Language. Through her, people learned a lot about animals, and about themselves. We’ll miss you, Koko, but we’ll never forget the love and learning you brought to our world.
Koko was born on July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo. Her full name, Hanabiko, means “Fireworks Child.”
Early in her life, Koko began to work with Francine Patterson, an animal psychologist. Patterson taught Koko a series of modified hand signs based on American Sign Language, simultaneously with human speech. This wasn’t the first primate language experiment, but it was the first one to capture public attention to such a degree.
During Patterson’s research, Koko lived with Patterson. After the research ended, Koko moved to a nature preserve in Woodside, California.
Gorilla Sign Language (GSL)
Patterson taught Koko around 1,000 hand signs, which Koko used to communicate. Koko also reportedly understood some 2,000 spoken human words. Koko would also go on to invent signs. For example, not knowing the sign for a ring, she created one, by combining the signs for “finger” and “bracelet.”
As with other primate language experiments, some people disputed the findings. It is generally accepted that Koko used and understood the signs but did not use human grammar or syntax (sentence structure). Koko had a measured IQ of between 70 and 95 and communicated at the level of a small human child.
Not everyone accepted Patterson’s research findings. Although most accepted that Koko, and later the bonobo Kanzi, communicated with humans using signs, many rejected the idea that they used language in the same way that people do. Moreover, many believe that Koko and Kanzi used language for different purposes. The apes, critics pointed out, used sign language only functionally — to ask for things, to respond to questions, and to convey information. They did not engage in spontaneous conversation as humans do.
Other critics pointed out that researchers who bonded with and cared for the apes read things into the apes’ communication that wasn’t there. As a result, critics believe that researchers attributed human motivations, thoughts, and emotions to the apes, which didn’t exist. And since often caregivers and trainers are the only ones who can communicate with their charges, some critics say that their interpretations cannot be independently verified. They also accuse the researchers of “selective interpretation.” You can read more about these criticisms in this article from Slate.
One of the things that most endeared Koko to the public was her demonstrations of affection — not just for her humans, but also for other animals. At one time, Koko even had her own pet!
Early on, Koko developed a soft spot for cats. Her favorite books, it was reported, were Puss In Boots and The Three Little Kittens. One year, her caregivers gave her a plush kitten as a birthday gift. Koko was not impressed, however. She knew it wasn’t real. She pushed the toy aside, signing “Sad.”
However, the next year, on her birthday, Koko got her chance. Her caregivers allowed her to pick out a kitten from an abandoned litter. Koko was thrilled. She named her kitten “All Ball.” She cuddled her kitten and nursed it. Once, in a fit of anger, Koko ripped the sink from the wall of her enclosure. When caregivers asked what happened, Koko pointed at the cat.
And who hasn’t done that?
After All Ball’s untimely death following being hit by a car, Koko would go on to have numerous other cats, including Lipstick, Smokey, Miss Black, and Miss Grey.
Koko’s Later Life
After Patterson finished her research with Koko, Koko moved to a preserve in Woodside, CA. There, she lived with a male gorilla named Michael, who also communicated with modified sign language.
Celebrities also loved Koko. At one point, she got to jam with Flea, the bassist from the band the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Koko herself played the recorder.
Koko also got to meet TV and film star, William Shatner. For Shatner, the encounter was so profound, he wrote about it in his autobiography. She also appeared on the Mr. Rogers show.
Koko passed away peacefully in her sleep, at age 46 — a ripe old age for a lowland gorilla. Her life has been immortalized in numerous books, films, and TV shows. If you want to learn more about Koko or support the activities of Patterson’s Gorilla Foundation, you can visit the Gorilla Foundation’s website at Koko.org.