Koko ‘The Sign Language Gorilla’ Passes Away Aged 46


Koko, the gorilla who could use sign language, has passed away at 46 years old. 

Koko became famous worldwide in the 80’s when she successfully learned American Sign Language (ASL). She is reported to have passed away in her sleep yesterday (June 20) at her home at the The Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in California’s Santa Cruz mountains.

The foundation announced Koko’s death with a press release. 

Koko – the gorilla known for her extraordinary mastery of sign language, and as the primary ambassador for her endangered species – passed away yesterday [Wednesday] morning in her sleep at the age of 46.

Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed.

Koko was born in 1971 at San Francisco Zoo, on July 4. She was originally named Hanabi-ko, which means ‘fireworks child’ in Japenese, in honour of her Fourth of July birthday.

Koko was loaned to Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson in 1974, who was conducting doctoral research at Stanford University. Koko formed a close bond with Penny, and stayed at the foundation with her until her death.

Instructors taught Koko sign language, and said she used the language to express her thoughts and feelings.

The gorilla knew over 1000 signs in American Sign Language – including, integrally, the middle finger. She is also said to have been able to understand 2000 words of spoken English, and have an IQ of between 75 and 95 – where the average IQ for humans is 100, the BBC report.

As well as her knowledge of sign language, Koko also showed a great love for kittens and cats. In 1983, Koko was given a kitten of her own, and she loved and cared for the animal as if it were her own offspring. Koko went on to adopt many kittens, the last of which she received in 2015 as a birthday present.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1985, a biologist with the Gorilla Foundation, Ron Cohn, talked about the gorilla’s love for the kitten.

They would play chase with each other and she (Koko) would hold it and pet it. The cat reacted to her as she would a human, but she was pretty independent and would bite Koko or wriggle loose when she got tired of being babied.

Koko reportedly signed ‘obnoxious cat’ when the kitten escaped Koko’s grasp.

Koko had many friends and admirers, including the late Robin Williams. The actor visited the gorilla at the Gorilla Foundation in 2001, and the two tickled each other and laughed. Koko took Williams’ glasses at one point and put them on her own head.

Robin Williams said their metting was ‘awesome and unforgettable’. When Williams passed away in 2014, Koko is said to have mourned the star’s death just like the rest of the world.

Many of Koko’s admirers took to Twitter to remember the gorilla after hearing of her passing.

Koko the gorilla was important. She showed us unequivocally that human beings are not the sole proprietors of personhood. Rest in peace, Koko.

RIP Koko, you touched the world more than you knew.

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