Koko, the gorilla at the center of a movement to understand the emotional depth and intelligence of animals, has died at age 46. Throughout her lifetime, she became the ambassador for all gorillas, showing the world their capacity to care, learn, and connect with humans.
Koko rose to prominence thanks to The Gorilla Foundation. Founder Francine Patterson worked with the gorilla to launch Project Koko in 1972, the first-ever project to study the linguistic capabilities of gorillas. Patterson began to teach Koko sign language at the age of one and throughout her lifetime, Koko learned more than 1,000 signs and 2,000 words. She was able to communicate her emotions and needs, having learned to sign when she felt loved, sad, in pain, or when she just wanted to be tickled.
While her ability to communicate with humans was beyond extraordinary, her capacity to experience and feel human-like emotions also engaged and attracted many people to her.
In 1984, Koko adopted a pet kitten who she named All Ball because of its resemblance to a fuzzy gray pom-pom. She cared for her as if it were her own child, and while cradling the kitten she often signed “soft” and “good cat.” When All Ball died after being struck by a car, Koko started whimpering and kept signing “sad.”
She charmed everyone she met with her tenderness and extraordinary ability to communicate. She was a celebrity in her own right, meeting famous humans including Betty White, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robin Williams. In fact, she considered Williams one of her closest friends and mourned his passing when the actor died in 2014.
“I think Koko’s biggest legacy will be the depth of emotion and personality that she displayed. I think this is what touched so many people,” said Marcus Perlman, a linguist at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who spent time with Koko in 2010 as a doctoral student.
Koko represented more than just a gorilla that could sign; she was a symbol for the deep link that exists between human and animals. She showed the world that gorillas are deeply emotional, intelligent animals that have the ability to receive and return affection, nurture, and empathize. With her death, Koko leaves behind an unforgettable legacy that will live on in other gorillas and The Gorilla Foundation.
“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the Gorilla Foundation said in a statement. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”
To learn more about Koko and the legacy she leaves behind, visit The Gorilla Foundation at http://www.koko.org.