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Remembering Koko, the Beloved Gorilla Who Learned to Communicate via Sign Language

Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language and touched hearts around the world with her expressions of emotion and empathy, has passed away at 46.

Koko cuddles with a feline friend

When the whole world grieves the passing of an animal, it’s clear it was a very special animal, indeed. Such was Koko the gorilla, who passed away in her sleep on June 19, 2018, at a preserve in California’s Santa Cruz mountains. Koko was 46.

A female western lowland gorilla, Koko touched us in so many ways, especially in her ability to learn hand signs—more than 1,000 signs in what her caregiver and instructor, animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson, calls “Gorilla Sign Language” (GSL), a modified version of American Sign Language (ASL).

Patterson also spoke English to Koko from her earliest years and it’s estimated that Koko understood some 2,000 English words. As might be expected, Koko didn’t grasp or utilize grammar and syntax, but her facility with language, both spoken and signed, represented remarkable progress in the effort to bridge the communication gap bewtween human beings and animals.

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” The Gorilla Foundation, which oversees the preserve where Koko lived for many years, posted in announcing the news of Koko’s passing on its website. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

Born on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, Koko was given the name Hanabi-ko (Japanese for “Fireworks Child”); the following year, Patterson began her groundbreaking work with Koko.

Koko was featured in numerous documentaries and twice appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine. Her first cover, on the October 1978 issue, was a precursor to today’s selfies: Koko took the photograph of herself in a mirror.

Koko enjoyed children’s books with kittens in them, and in December 1983, when asked what she’d like for Christmas, she said she wanted a kitten. When she was given a stuffed toy, she expressed her disappointment, so in July of ’84, for her birthday, she was allowed to choose her favorite from a litter of several kittens.

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She chose a gray-and-white Manx and named it “All Ball.” Koko liked to rhyme when she signed and to her, the tiny kitten resembled a ball. She played with All Ball about an hour a day, in between the various other activities that filled her waking hours.

“They would play chase with each other and [Koko] would hold it and pet it,” biologist Ron Cohn told The Los Angeles Times in 1985. “The cat reacted to [Koko] as she would a human, but she was pretty independent and would bite Koko or wriggle loose when she got tired of being babied.”

In December 1984, All Ball got loose and made her way onto a highway near the preserve, where she was run over. When Koko learned the sad news, Cohn said, “she acted like she didn’t hear us for about 10 minutes. Then she started whimpering—a distinct hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad. We all started crying together.” Animal lovers around the world mourned with Koko.

In the press release announcing Koko’s death, the Gorilla Foundation said, “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.”

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