Koko (gorilla)

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Born (1971-07-04) July 4, 1971 (age 43)[1]
San Francisco Zoo, USA
Years active 1972–present
Known for Use of sign language, pet kitten

Hanabiko "Koko" (born July 4, 1971) is a female western lowland gorilla who has supposedly been taught American Sign Language, beginning in 1972. According to Francine "Penny" Patterson, her long-term trainer, she is able to understand more than 1,000 signs of what Patterson calls "Gorilla Sign Language" (GSL), which is based on American Sign Language,[2] and she understands approximately two thousand words of spoken English.[3] Koko also gained publicity when she reportedly adopted a kitten.

As with other great ape language experiments, the degree to which Koko has mastered and demonstrates these signs is disputed.

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 literally "fireworks child"?) in Japanese, a reference to her date of birth, the Fourth of July.

Use of language[edit]

Patterson claims 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] 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".[7]

On April 12, 1998, an event promoted as an online chat with Koko took place on AOL.[8]

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.[9][10] 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 1, and now, according to Patterson, she can use more than a thousand different signs.[11] A bonobo named Kanzi, who had learned to communicate 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 had done so until Kanzi began signing to anthropologist Dawn Prince-Hughes, who had previously worked closely with gorillas.[12]

Koko's pets[edit]

Koko is one of the few non-humans known to keep a pet. Researchers at The Gorilla Foundation said that Koko asked for a cat for Christmas in 1983. Ron Cohn, a biologist with the foundation, explained to the Los Angeles Times that when she was given a lifelike stuffed animal, she was less than satisfied. She did not play with it and continued to sign "sad." So on her birthday in July 1984, 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". Penny Patterson, who had custody of Koko and who had 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 that Koko's nurturing of the kitten and the skills she gained through playing with dolls would be helpful in Koko's learning how to nurture an offspring.[13][14]

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 been killed, Koko signed "Bad, sad, bad" and "Frown, cry, frown, sad". Patterson also reported later hearing Koko making a sound similar to human weeping.[14]

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.[15]


Koko and Dr. Patterson's work with her have been the subject of several books and documentaries.


  1. ^ "Koko's Birthday Gallery Blog". koko.org. The Gorilla Foundation. 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. 
  3. ^ Wise, Steven M. (2003). Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. Basic Books. p. 216. ISBN 0-7382-0810-8. 
  4. ^ "CHECK IT OUT: Gorilla project under redesign". The Maui News. 2007-10-01. 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. 
  6. ^ Blackmore, Susan J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. p. 88. ISBN 0-19-286212-X. 
  7. ^ "Mission part 1: Research". koko.org. 
  8. ^ "Koko's First Interspecies Web Chat: Transcript". koko.org. 
  9. ^ Patterson, FG. (1981). "Ape Language". Science 211 (4477): 86–88. doi:10.1126/science.211.4477.86-a. PMID 7444454. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Haviland, W. A.; Prins, H. E. L.; Walrath; McBride, B. The Essence of Anthropology (3rd ed.). Cengage Learning, 2012. p. 178. ISBN 9781111833442. 
  12. ^ Prince-Hughes, Dawn (1987). Songs of the Gorilla Nation. Harmony. p. 135. ISBN 1-4000-5058-8. 
  13. ^ Hannaford, A. (October 7, 2011, October 7). "Talking to Koko the gorilla". The Week. Retrieved December 7, 2012.
  14. ^ a b McGraw, C. (1985, January 10). "Gorilla's Pets: Koko Mourns Kittens Death". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  15. ^ AP (August 15, 1985). "Koko the gorilla ape over her new kittens". Associated Press. Retrieved 10 February 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

See also extensive Further reading section at Animal language article
  • Patterson, F. G. P.; M. L. Matevia (2001). "Twenty-seven Years of Project Koko and Michael". In Biruté M.F. Galdikas, Nancy Erickson Briggs, Lori K. Sheeran, Gary L. Shapiro, Jane Goodall. All Apes Great and Small: African Apes. Springer. pp. 165–176. ISBN 0-306-46757-7. 
  • Patterson, Dr. Francine (1987). Koko's Kitten. Scholastic, Inc. ISBN 0-590-44425-5
  • Patterson, Francine and Wendy Gordon (1993) "The case for the personhood of gorillas" In: P Cavalieri and P Singer (Eds) The great ape project: Equality beyond humanity, St. Martin's Press, pp. 58–77. ISBN 9780312118181.

External links[edit]