Koko the Gorilla passed away recently in her sleep. She was 46. Famous for learning American Sign Language, she apparently demonstrated comprehension, emotion and independent thought. An example is her famous comment about human stewardship of the earth in this video:
Some maintain that Koko did not know what she was saying, that she did not comprehend the language she used, but then again, do we? Can you prove it?
Koko would have been 47 this July 4th, 2018. Remember her as you celebrate America’s independence and enjoy your own freedom to find meaning in symbols.
“The Gorilla Foundation is sad to announce the passing of our beloved Koko,” the research center says, informing the world about the death of a gorilla who fascinated and elated millions of people with her facility for language.
Koko, who was 46, died in her sleep Tuesday morning, the Gorilla Foundation said. At birth, she was named Hanabi-ko — Japanese for “fireworks child,” because she was born at the San Francisco Zoo on the Fourth of July in 1971. She was a western lowland gorilla.
“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,” the Gorilla Foundation said.
Throughout her life, Koko’s abilities made headlines. After she began communicating with humans through American Sign Language, she was featured by National Geographic — and she took her own picture (in a mirror) for the magazine’s cover.
That cover came out in 1978, seven years after Koko was chosen as an infant to work on a language research project with the psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson. In 1985, the magazine profiled the affectionate relationship between the gorilla and her kitten: Koko and All Ball.
In 2001, Koko made a fast friend in comedian Robin Williams, trying on his glasses, showing him around and getting him to tickle her. Then they made faces at each other — and the gorilla seemed to recall seeing Williams in a movie.
Years later, in 2014, Koko was one of many who mourned Williams’ passing.
Koko amazed scientists in 2012, when she showed she could learn to play the recorder. The feat revealed mental acuity but also, crucially, that primates can learn to intricately control their breathing — something that had been assumed to be beyond their abilities.
Her ability to interact with people made Koko an international celebrity. But she also revealed the depth and strength of a gorilla’s emotional life, sharing moments of glee and sadness with researchers Patterson and Ron Cohn.
When Patterson started teaching ASL signs to Koko in 1971, little was known about interspecies communication. No one thought much about the ethical costs of turning a gorilla into a sort of hybrid animal caught between a gorilla world and a human one. Patterson’s research project took on a snowballing life of its own, fueled by her own love for Koko and also by increasing media attention. …
Koko had been given to Patterson on loan from the San Francisco Zoo. In 1977, the zoo decided it wanted Koko back. Eventually, a deal was worked out so that Koko could be purchased for $12,500, contingent on her being bred with a male (this turned out to be Michael, and the mating didn’t work out). …
… Koko isn’t our only window into gorilla consciousness. Wild gorillas have been seen seeking out and dismantling poachers’ snares in the forest. All gorillas — free-ranging in Africa, confined to zoos, living in a trailer in Woodside, Calif. — are smart apes who feel emotions.
If only our species was better at just letting gorillas — and their natural habitat — just be.
It started with a few words.
After starting with symbols for “eat”, “drink”, and “more”, Dr Patterson has claimed that Koko can understand more than 1,000 signs, and can use them to construct phrases of her own.
Appleby said: “What can be so startling is that because she’s been brought up with people, she has similar mannerisms, similar gestures, and you do feel that there’s a familiarity that you wouldn’t normally expect to have with an animal.
It is generally accepted that the communication was real, not just a simple trick.
It is now generally accepted that apes can learn to sign and are able to communicate with humans. … Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, a student of the Gardners, in 1972 began an ongoing program to teach ASL to a lowlands gorilla named Koko. Unlike the Gardners she did not limit her English speech around Koko, and as a result Koko was reported to understand approximately 1,000 ASL signs and 2,000 English words.
While ape communication may indeed be viewed as just a trick for a reward, the same could be said of human communication. In other words, is not Noam Chomsky simply uttering flattering phrases for praises of people in dazes?
Some scientists, including MIT linguist Noam Chomsky and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, are skeptical about claims made for great ape language research. Among the reasons for skepticism are the differences in ease with which human beings and apes can learn language; there are also questions of whether there is a clear beginning and end to the signed gestures and whether the apes actually understand language or are simply doing a clever trick for a reward. While vocabulary words from American Sign Language are used to train the apes, native users of ASL note that mere knowledge of ASL’s vocabulary does not equate to ASL.
You can watch the interactions with Koko and decide for yourself if this is another case of Hans the Horse who could do math. I don’t think so, but awareness and communication are gradients, not yes or no answers.
In any case, Koko lived a celebrity life and a fairly long life for a gorilla.
A gorilla’s lifespan is normally between 35 and 40 years, although zoo gorillas may live for 50 years or more. Colo, a female western gorilla at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium was the oldest known gorilla, at 60 years of age when she died on January 17, 2017.
Rest In Peace, Koko the human captive “talking” gorilla.