Koko (gorilla)

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Born(1971-07-04) July 4, 1971 (age 41)[1]
San Francisco Zoo, USA
Years active1979–present
Known forUse of sign language, pet kitten
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Born(1971-07-04) July 4, 1971 (age 41)[1]
San Francisco Zoo, USA
Years active1979–present
Known forUse of sign language, pet kitten

Koko (born July 4, 1971) is a female gorilla who, according to Francine "Penny" Patterson, is able to understand more than 1,000 signs based on American Sign Language,[2] and understand approximately 2,000 words of spoken English.[3]

As with other ape language experiments, the degree to which Koko masters these signs has been controversial, as has been the degree to which such mastery demonstrates language abilities.

Koko was born at San Francisco Zoo and has lived most of her life in Woodside, California, although a move to a sanctuary on Maui, Hawaii, has been planned since the 1990s.[4] Koko is short for the name Hanabiko (花火子 lit. "fireworks child"?) in Japanese, a reference to her date of birth, the Fourth of July.


Use of language

Francine Patterson (her longterm trainer) believes that Koko's use of signs and her actions, which are consistent with her use of signs, indicate she has mastered the use of sign language.[2] Other researchers argue that she does not understand the meaning behind what she is doing and learns to complete the signs simply because the researchers reward her for doing so (indicating that her actions are the product of operant conditioning).[5][6] However, the latter position is not consistent with the claims that Koko uses the language freely and in novel ways, even when there is no foreseeable gratification.[7] Another concern that has been raised about Koko's ability to express coherent thoughts through the use of signs is that interpretation of the gorilla's conversation is left to the handler, who may see improbable concatenations of signs as meaningful.

Patterson says that she has documented Koko inventing new signs to communicate novel thoughts. For example, she says that nobody taught Koko the word for "ring", but to refer to it, Koko combined the words "finger" and "bracelet", hence "finger-bracelet".[8]

On April 12, 1998, an event promoted as an online chat with Koko took place on AOL.[9]

Criticism from some parts of the scientific community centers on the fact that while publications often appear in the popular press about Koko, scientific publications are fewer in number.[10][11] Such debate requires careful consideration of what it means to "learn" or "use" a language (see Animal language for further discussion).

Koko's training began at the age of one. Patterson has assessed Koko's vocabulary at over 1,000 signs, which would place her among the most proficient non-human users of language.[12][non-primary source needed] The bonobo(a type of ape), Kanzi, who learned to speak using a keyboard with lexigrams, picked up some sign language from watching videos of Koko; Kanzi's researcher, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, did not realize he could sign until Kanzi began signing to anthropologist Dawn Prince-Hughes, who had previously worked closely with gorillas.[13]

Most of the claims about Koko's language use center around her use, not of sentences, but of adjectives, nouns, and noun phrases. For example, Penny will give Koko a treat if she points to an apple and gives the sign for "apple" or "red".

Michael and Ndume

Patterson claims that Michael, a gorilla who lived with Koko for several years, also developed a broad vocabulary of signs, over 600, but did not become as proficient as Koko before his death in 2000. Michael's caregivers believe that he witnessed and remembered his mother's death at the hands of poachers, but was unable to express the event clearly. In the PBS Nature special Koko: Conversation with a Gorilla, a group of Michael's signs is interpreted to be an attempt to convey a description of his mother being shot as he watched. While it was intended that Koko and Michael might produce a baby gorilla and teach it to sign, the two saw each other as siblings and did not mate.

Another gorilla, named Ndume, was selected by Koko from a group of videotapes shown to her by Patterson, who played several tapes showing male western gorillas, in what may be described as an attempt at "video-dating." Despite these efforts, Koko and Ndume have also not mated. The Foundation is currently working to solve this, while Koko's biological clock still permits (possibly into her early forties).

Koko's pets

Although not unique, Koko is one of the few non-humans known to keep pets. Researchers at the Gorilla Foundation said that Koko asked for a cat for Christmas in 1984. Ron Cohn, a biologist with the foundation, explained to the Los Angeles Times that when she was given a life like stuffed animal, she was less than satisfied. She didn't play with it and continued to sign "sad". So on her birthday in July she was able to choose a kitten from a litter. Koko selected a gray male Manx from a litter of abandoned kittens and named him "All Ball". Doctor Penny Patterson, who had custody of Koko and organized the Gorilla Foundation, wrote that Koko cared for the kitten as if it were a baby gorilla. Researchers said that she tried to nurse All Ball and was very gentle and loving. They believed the kitten, and her skills gained through playing with dolls, would be a tool to help Koko learn how to nurture an offspring. [14] [15]

In December of that same year, All Ball escaped from Koko's cage and was hit and killed by a car. Later, Patterson said that when she signed to Koko that All Ball had gone, Koko signed "Bad, sad, bad" and "Frown, cry, frown, sad". Patterson also reported later hearing Koko making a sound similar to human weeping. Because of this Gary Kowalski, a Unitarian Universalist minister, came to a conclusion that gorillas do not just mourn. They seem to be able to reflect on their own demise and struggle, similar to human beings. [16]

In 1985, Koko was allowed to pick out two new kittens from a litter to be her companions. The animals she chose, later named "Lipstick" and "Smokey", were also Manxes like All Ball.[17]

The Gorilla Foundation also briefly played home to a male green-winged macaw of mysterious origin who had been found inhabiting the grounds and feeding on the loquat trees, though he was not a pet of Koko's in the same way her cats were. Initially frightened of the parrot, Koko named him "Devil Tooth", "devil" presumably coming from his being mostly red, and "tooth" for his fierce-looking white beak; the human staff adjusted the name to "Devil Beak", and ultimately to "DB".

Sexual harassment

Three female former employees have claimed that they were pressured into showing their breasts to Koko.[18] They alleged that Patterson encouraged the behavior, often interpreted Koko's signs as requests for nipple display, and let them know that their job would be in danger if they "did not indulge Koko's nipple fetish".[19] The parties eventually reached a settlement when the women dropped suit based on a judge ruling based on lack of evidence.[20] Patterson claimed that Koko uses the word "nipple" to refer to humans because it sounds like "people".[21]

See also


  1. ^ "Koko's Birthday Gallery Blog". koko.org. The Gorilla Foundation. http://www.koko.org/world/birthdays/. Retrieved September 8, 2012.
  2. ^ a b Fischer, Steven R. (1999). A History of Language. Reaktion Books. pp. 26–28. ISBN 1-86189-080-X. http://books.google.com/?id=5i1Ql7QQy0kC&pg=PA27&dq=koko+language.
  3. ^ Wise, Steven M. (2003). Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. Basic Books. p. 216. ISBN 0-7382-0810-8. http://books.google.com/?id=2Wq7kZBdvIcC&pg=PA216&dq=koko+english+language+understand.
  4. ^ "CHECK IT OUT: Gorilla project under redesign". The Maui News. 2007-10-01. http://www.mauinews.com/page/content.detail/id/34668.html. Retrieved 2008-05-26.
  5. ^ Candland, Douglas Keith (1993). Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature. Oxford University Press US. pp. 293–301. ISBN 0-19-510284-3. http://books.google.com/?id=RYG_CAWZZ4sC&pg=PA296&dq=koko+gorilla+operant+conditioning.
  6. ^ Blackmore, Susan J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. p. 88. ISBN 0-19-286212-X. http://books.google.com/?id=dtkeLWVMlcsC&pg=PA88&dq=koko+gorilla+criticism.
  7. ^ Steinberg, Danny D.; Natalia V. Sciarini (2006). An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. Pearson Education. pp. 109–110. ISBN 0-582-50575-5. http://books.google.com/?id=P5ZTXnzSCBYC&pg=PA109&dq=koko+gorilla+finger-bracelet.
  8. ^ "Mission part 1: Research". koko.org. http://www.koko.org/friends/research.koko.html.
  9. ^ "Koko's First Interspecies Web Chat: Transcript". koko.org. http://www.koko.org/world/talk_aol.html.
  10. ^ Patterson, FG. (1981). "Ape Language". Science 211 (4477): 86–88. doi:10.1126/science.211.4477.86-a. PMID 7444454.
  11. ^ Patterson, FG. (1978). "The gestures of a gorilla: language acquisition in another pongid.". Brain and Language 5 (1): 72–97. doi:10.1016/0093-934X(78)90008-1. PMID 618570.
  12. ^ Gorilla Foundation - Gorilla Intelligence and Behavior
  13. ^ Prince-Hughes, Dawn (1987). Songs of the Gorilla Nation. Harmony. p. 135. ISBN 1-4000-5058-8.
  14. ^ Hannaford, A. (2011, October 7). Talking to Koko the gorilla. Retrieved December 7, 2012, from http://theweek.com/article/index/220013/ talking-to-koko-the-gorilla
  15. ^ McGraw, C. (1985, January 10). Gorilla's Pets: Koko Mourns Kittens Death. Retrieved December 12, 2012, from Los Angeles Times website: http://articles.latimes.com/1985-01-10/news/mn-9038_1_pet-kitten
  16. ^ Kowalski, G. (2007, July 11). Are Animals Aware of Death? Retrieved December 14, 2012, from Kajama website: http://www.kajama.com/ index.php?file=articledetail&id=DC508A2E-0F28-42CA-882B-8B4818CFB53E&PageNum=1
  17. ^ AP (August 15, 1985). "Koko the gorilla ape over her new kittens". Associated Press. http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1985/-Talking-Gorilla-Enjoying-New-Pets/id-628f18d56e077852270b4399e123cb9a. Retrieved 10 February 2013.
  18. ^ SFGate.com - 'Gorilla Foundation rocked by breast display lawsuit: Former employees say they were told to expose chests', Patricia Yollin, San Francisco Chronicle (February 18, 2005)
  19. ^ "'Gorilla breast partialism' women sue". BBC News. February 20, 2005. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4280961.stm. Retrieved May 7, 2010.
  20. ^ Women drop sexual harassment suit against Koko the gorilla's caretaker CourtTV, November 28, 2005
  21. ^ "Are gorillas using sign language really communicating with humans?". The Straight Dope. 2003-03-28. http://www.straightdope.com/columns/030328.html.

Further reading

External links