Koko the gorilla, 46: An ‘icon for interspecies communication, empathy’
Koko holds her kitten, All Ball. | AP

Koko, the beloved western lowland gorilla who could communicate with sign language, died at age 46, the Gorilla Foundation announced. She died in her sleep on Tuesday morning in Woodside, California.

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed,” the foundation said in a press release.

Koko was born Hanabi-ko (Japanese for “fireworks child”) on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. Animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson began working with Koko at the tender age of one.

She famously learned about 1,000 words in American Sign Language and could understand about 2,000 words of spoken English.

“Koko’s capacity for language and empathy has opened the minds and hearts of millions,” the Gorilla Foundation noted.

She was featured in multiple documentaries and on the cover of magazines. The Oct. 1978 cover of National Geographic featured a photograph Koko had taken of herself in a mirror.

Koko was also known for her love of cats and had pet kittens, including one named All Ball that Koko cradled on another National Geographic cover. The book Koko’s Kitten, written by Patterson, is the true story of Koko receiving a kitten on her twelfth birthday and highlights their affectionate relationship.

In 2015, Koko was invited by NOE Conservation to represent the “Voice of Nature” at the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris.

In her PSA, Koko urges humanity to protect the environment. She signs: “Man Koko love. Earth Koko love. But Man stupid. Stupid! Koko sorry. Koko cry. Time hurry! Fix Earth! Help Earth! Hurry! Protect Earth. Nature see you. Thank you.”

The Gorilla Foundation said at the time that “Koko was very interested in the subject.” Koko was given a script drafted by NOE for the video and was allowed to improvise. She had to learn a few new signs, such as “Protect” and “Nature.”

“The resulting PSA was edited from a number of separate takes, for brevity and continuity. However, Koko was clear about the main message: Man is harming the Earth and its many animal and plant species and needs to ‘hurry’ and fix the problem,” the foundation said.

Besides her mastery of language, Koko could also play the recorder and had famous friends, including the comedian Robin Williams and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea.

“This is the greatest thing that could ever happen,” the musician remarked as he watched Koko plucking and strumming a guitar in 2016. “This is the greatest day that I will never forget in my life.”

Koko will certainly be missed by fans around the world. Condolences can be sent to the email kokolove@koko.org or posted on the Gorilla Foundation’s Facebook page.

“The foundation will continue to honor Koko’s legacy and advance our mission with ongoing projects including conservation efforts in Africa, the great ape sanctuary on Maui, and a sign language application featuring Koko for the benefit of both gorillas and children,” the Gorilla Foundation stated.

This article was reposted from EcoWatch.


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Lorraine Chow
Lorraine Chow

Lorraine Chow is a reporter for EcoWatch.

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