Koko, the Gorilla Who Learned Sign Language, Passes Away at 46

koko

If you were a kid in the ’90s, you wanted to do three things: go to Space Camp, complete the Temple Run on Legends of the Hidden Temple, and meet Koko, the sign language gorilla. Sadly, the world-famous gorilla has passed away at the age of 46, at her home at The Gorilla Foundation in the Santa Cruz mountains. The Gorilla Foundation released a statement saying, “Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world. She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

Koko was born on the Fourth of July in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, where she was named Hanabi-ko (Japanese for “fireworks child”). The western lowland gorilla was selected as an infant by animal psychologist Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, who developed a language research project designed to teach a modified form of American Sign Language, known as “Gorilla Sign Language” or GSL. Koko was able to master more than 1,000 signs in GSL, and reportedly understood up to 2,000 English verbal words. She quickly became world famous for her remarkable intelligence and empathy for others.

In addition to GSL, Koko showed extraordinary intelligence and aptitude, learning to play the recorder and operate a camera. Her self portrait made the cover of the National Geographic in 1978. Did Koko invent the selfie? Sure looks like it.

Koko was widely recognized in pop culture after meeting several celebrities, such as Mister Rogers, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and Robin Williams. When Williams died in 2014, Koko’s handlers said she expressed sadness at the news.

Koko was also famous for her love of kittens, and for expressing grief when her kitten Ball died. The beloved gorilla inspired generations of children and adults with her compassion and playful nature, reminding us that we are not so different from our fellow mammals. Rest in Peace, Koko.

(via NPR, image: PBS)

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