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Koko (gorilla)

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Species Western lowland gorilla
Sex Female
Born (1971-07-04) July 4, 1971 (age 46)[1]
San Francisco Zoo, US
Known for Use of sign language, pet keeping

Hanabiko "Koko" (born July 4, 1971) is a female western lowland gorilla who is known for having learned a large number of hand signs from a modified version of American Sign Language (ASL).

Her instructor and caregiver, animal psychologist Francine "Penny" Patterson, reports that Koko is able to understand more than 1,000 signs of what Patterson calls "Gorilla Sign Language" (GSL).[2] In contrast to other experiments attempting to teach sign language to non-human primates, Patterson simultaneously exposed Koko to spoken English from an early age. Reports state that Koko understands approximately 2,000 words of spoken English, in addition to the signs.[3] Koko's life and learning process has been described by Patterson and some of her collaborators in a number of books, peer reviewed articles, and on a website.

As with other great ape language experiments, the extent to which Koko has mastered and demonstrates language through the use of these signs is disputed.[4][5] But it is generally accepted that she does not use syntax or grammar, and that her use of language does not exceed that of a young human child.[6][7][8][9][10]

Koko was born at the 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.[11] The name Hanabiko (花火子, literally meaning "fireworks child") is a reference to her date of birth, the Fourth of July. Koko gained public attention upon initial reportage of her adopting a kitten as a pet.[12]


Koko was originally loaned to Francine Patterson for her doctoral research, but has stayed with Patterson ever since, supported by The Gorilla Foundation. Koko's weight of 280 lbs is higher than would be normal for a gorilla in the wild, where the average weight is approximately 150 to 200 lbs. For a while, Koko lived with another gorilla, Michael, who also learned sign language but died in 2000. She now lives with a male gorilla, Ndume.[13]

Use of language

Patterson reports that Koko's use of signs indicate that she has mastered the use of sign language.[2] Koko's training began at the age of 1, and now, according to Patterson, she can use more than 1,000 signs, including giving people the finger.[14]

Patterson has reported that Koko has made several complex uses of signs that suggest a more developed degree of cognition than is usually attributed to non-human primates and their use of communication. For example, Koko has been reported to use displacement (the ability to communicate about objects not currently present).[15] At age 19, Koko was also able to pass the mirror test of self recognition, which most other gorillas fail.[16][17] She has also been reported to relay personal memories.[18] Koko has also been reported to use meta-language, being able to use language reflexively to speak about language itself, signing "good sign" to another gorilla who successfully used signing.[19] Koko has also been reported to use language deceptively, and to use counterfactual statements for humorous effects, suggesting an underlying theory of other minds.[20]

Patterson also reports 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".[21]

Criticism from some scientists centers on the fact that while publications often appear in the popular press about Koko, scientific publications with substantial data are fewer in number.[22][23][24] Other researchers argue that Koko 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).[25][26] Another concern that has been raised about Koko's ability to express coherent thoughts through signs is that interpretation of the gorilla's conversation is left to the handler, who may see improbable concatenations of signs as meaningful. For example, when Koko signs "sad" there is no way to tell whether she means it with the connotation of "How sad." Following Patterson's initial publications in 1978, a series of critical evaluations of her reports of signing behavior in great apes argued that video evidence suggested that Koko was simply being prompted by their trainers' unconscious cues to display specific signs, in what is commonly called the Clever Hans effect.[27][28][29][30][20][31] Such debate requires careful consideration of what it means to "learn" or "use" a language[citation needed] (see Animal language for further discussion).

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.[32]

Koko's pets

Koko is one of the few non-humans known to keep a pet.[citation needed] 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 of abandoned kittens. Koko selected a gray male Manx 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.[33][34]

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.[34]

In 1985, Koko was allowed to pick out two new kittens from a litter to be her companions. The animals she chose, she named "Lipstick" and "Smoky", were also Manxes.[35] Koko picked the name after seeing the tiny orange Manx for the first time. When her trainer asked the meaning of the name, Koko answered, Lips lipstick. Dr. Patterson was confused until she realized that Lips had a pink nose and mouth, unlike All Ball's gray markings. Koko picked Smoky's name because the kitten looks like a cat in one of the gorilla's books.

More recently, to celebrate her birthday in July 2015, Koko was presented another litter of kittens. Picking two she named them Miss Black and Miss Grey.[36]


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

See also


  1. ^ "Koko's Birthday Gallery Blog". 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. ^ Ward, B. (1999). Koko: Fact or Fiction?. American Language Review, 3(3), 12-15.
  5. ^ Hu, Jane C. (2014-08-20). "What Do Talking Apes Really Tell Us?". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2018-03-06. 
  6. ^ Michael W. Eysenck, 2000, Psychology: A Student's Handbook Taylor & Francis, p. 247
  7. ^ Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, Nina Hyams. 2013. An Introduction to Language. Cengage Learning, pp. 20-21
  8. ^ William A. Haviland, Harald E. L. Prins, Dana Walrath, Bunny McBride. 2012. The Essence of Anthropology 3rd ed. Cengage Learning, p. 178
  9. ^ Gisela Håkansson, Jennie Westander. 2013. Communication in Humans and Other Animals. John Benjamins Publishing, p. 131
  10. ^ Joel Wallman.1992. Aping Language. Cambridge University Press, p. 20
  11. ^ "CHECK IT OUT: Gorilla project under redesign". The Maui News. 2007-10-01. Retrieved 2008-05-26. 
  12. ^ Patterson, Francine (Penny), Koko's Kitten, photographs by Ron Cohn (1985)
  13. ^ Hillix, W. A. & Rumbaugh, D. M. (2004). Koko Fine Sign Gorilla. In, "Animal Bodies, Human Minds: Ape, Dolphin, and Parrot Language Skills" (pp. 99-111). Springer US. Koko had two pet kittens, All Ball, and once All Ball got sadly hit by a car, Lipstick. Koko named All Ball All Ball because he had no tail. Lipstick was called Lipstick by Koko because she was a tabby, which Koko thought looked like lipstick
  14. ^ Haviland, W. A.; Prins, H. E. L.; Walrath, D.; McBride, B. The Essence of Anthropology (3rd ed.). Cengage Learning, 2012. p. 178. ISBN 9781111833442. 
  15. ^ Nick Lund. 2013. Animal Cognition. Routledge, p. 77-78
  16. ^ Shigeru Watanabe, Stan Kuczaj. 2012. Emotions of Animals and Humans: Comparative Perspectives. Springer Science & Business Media, p. 189
  17. ^ Tomasello, M., & Call, J. (1997). Primate cognition. Oxford University Press.
  18. ^ Anne E. Russon, Kim A. Bard, Sue Taylor Parker. 1998. Reaching Into Thought: The Minds of the Great Apes. Cambridge University Press, Nov 26, 1998 p. 330
  19. ^ Vyvyan Evans. 2014. The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct Cambridge University Press,p. 57
  20. ^ a b Miles, H. L. (1986). How can I tell a lie? Apes, language, and the problem of deception. Deception: Perspectives on human and nonhuman deceit, 245-266.
  21. ^ "Mission part 1: Research". 
  22. ^ Patterson, FG. (1981). "Ape Language". Science. 211 (4477): 86–88. doi:10.1126/science.211.4477.86-a. PMID 7444454. 
  23. ^ 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. 
  24. ^ Hu, Jane C. (August 20, 2014). "What do talking apes really tell us?"
  25. ^ 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. 
  26. ^ Blackmore, Susan J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. p. 88. ISBN 0-19-286212-X. 
  27. ^ Petitto, L. A., & Seidenberg, M. S. (1979). On the evidence for linguistic abilities in signing apes. Brain and Language, 8(2), 162-183.
  28. ^ Miles, H. L. (1983). Apes and language: The search for communicative competence. In Language in primates (pp. 43-61). Springer New York.
  29. ^ Terrace, H. S. (1983). Apes who “talk”: language or projection of language by their teachers?. In Language in Primates (pp. 19-42). Springer New York.
  30. ^ Terrace, H. S., Petitto, L. A., Sanders, R. J., & Bever, T. G. (1979). Can an ape create a sentence?. Science, 206(4421), 891-902.
  31. ^ Sanders, R. J. (1985). Teaching apes to ape language: Explaining the imitative and nonimitative signing of a chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 99(2), 197.
  32. ^ Prince-Hughes, Dawn (1987). Songs of the Gorilla Nation. Harmony. p. 135. ISBN 1-4000-5058-8. 
  33. ^ Hannaford, A. (October 7, 2011, October 7). "Talking to Koko the gorilla". The Week. Retrieved December 7, 2012.
  34. ^ a b McGraw, C. (1985, January 10). "Gorilla's Pets: Koko Mourns Kitten's Death". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  35. ^ AP (August 15, 1985). "Koko the gorilla ape over her new kittens". Associated Press. Retrieved 10 February 2013. Koko picked the name after seeing the tiny orange Manx for the first time. When her trainer asked the meaning of the name, Koko answered, Lips lipstick. Ms. Patterson was confused until she realized that Lips had a pink nose and mouth, unlike All Ball's gray markings. Koko picked Smoky's name because the kitten looks like a cat in one of the gorilla's books, she said Wednesday. 
  36. ^ "Koko's New Kittens". Retrieved 2016-07-13. 
  37. ^ Jan Turner (2012-07-02), Koko the Gorilla with Robin Williams.mp4, retrieved 2017-04-29 
  38. ^
  39. ^

Further reading

  • 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.
  • Vessels, Jane (January 1985). "Koko's Kitten". National Geographic. Vol. 167 no. 1. pp. 110–113. ISSN 0027-9358. OCLC 643483454. 
  • Weiner, Jody (2005) "Hot Koko". California Lawyer. p. 80.
  • Weiner, Jody. "Hot Koko & the Fetching Cat". Kinship with Animals. Updated Edition Ed. Kate Solisti and Michael Tobias. San Francisco/Tulsa: Council Oak, 2006. 182-88. ISBN 978-1571781895

External links