Remembering Koko, the gorilla who gave us a sign

The world-famous primate learned to use sign language and changed how we view animal communication
Koko and-MsGray_0119 Koko plays with one of her pet cats, Ms. Gray. From her abilities with language to her relationships with all kinds of other species—including people—Koko was one amazing animal! (The Gorilla Foundation)


This past June 20 was a sad day in animal-human friendships. A 46 year-old western lowland gorilla named Koko died peacefully in her sleep at her home at The Gorilla Foundation in California.

Koko was no average gorilla. She was famous around the world for her unique abilities with human language. Using American Sign Language (ASL), Koko could "speak" with people.

A remarkable vocabulary

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How did Koko gain these abilities? Koko was born on July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo, but had a life-threatening illness in the first few months of her life. That was when a researcher at Stanford University named Francine "Penny" Patterson began to take care of Koko. As a part of her research into animal abilities, Penny started teaching the now one year-old gorilla ASL. Slowly, but surely, it worked.

As an adult, Koko was able to express over 1,000 words with ASL. And though she couldn't verbally speak herself, she could understand around 2,000 spoken words. This means that she could do more than just say that she was hungry or tired. She could express thoughts and emotions. She could even piece separate words together to describe an object. For example, she once put the words "finger" and "bracelet" together to talk about a person's ring.

A mental breakthrough

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Think about that finger-bracelet story for a moment. To do that, Koko needed to a) understand that she didn't have a word for a ring, b) think of words that she already knew that could describe it, and c) see the value in even bothering to try. These may seem like obvious things. Humans do it many times a day, all through their lives. But for a gorilla to do it was huge.

Koko was also well known for her love of cats. She had a few pet cats over her lifetime. And when her pets died, she expressed sadness and longing, just as we do. Though the full meaning of Koko's language abilities is still debated by scientists, there's no denying that she did things that were a real breakthrough.

Always a reminder

Today would've been Koko's 47th birthday. In fact, her full name—Hanabiko—means "fireworks child" in Japanese, which is a reference to her being born on Independence Day in the United States.

It is a perfect time to remember a creature that taught us so much about the potential for humans and animals to understand each other. It is also a reminder of the fact that—with 98.3% of the same DNA as us—gorillas are much closer to being our relatives than unknown strangers. Koko and her lifelong human friend, Penny, showed us what is possible when we take that message to heart.

Watch a short documentary about their incredible friendship below.


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