Koko the gorilla is gone, but she left a legacy

Koko the gorilla

R.I.P.  Koko, seen here showing Francine Patterson a flower, gained fame for learning sign language. The western lowland gorilla died June 19 at age 46.

The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org

When Koko died in her sleep in California on June 19, people throughout the world immediately began mourning the gorilla.

Koko was a charmer and undeniably smart. She took an unusual route to fame. Stanford University graduate student Francine Patterson started teaching Koko a version of sign language in 1972, the year after the infant ape was born. Patterson rapidly developed a deep emotional connection to Koko.

Patterson’s claims that Koko learned to communicate and converse with sign language in a humanlike way won the gorilla legions of fans but also attracted much scientific criticism. Patterson’s work with Koko came at a time when captive chimps were also receiving sign language training.

Science News spoke with anthropologist Barbara King about Koko’s legacy. King, of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., studies emotions and thinking in nonhuman animals. Her books include How Animals Grieve.

Q: What were your first thoughts upon hearing that Koko had died?

A: My first response wasn’t thoughts, but tears. After that, a reflection on how Koko taught us so much about the great ape mind, even while she paid a cost, in her own daily life, for our scientific curiosity.

Q: What is Koko’s scientific legacy, especially for understanding ape communication?

A: How amazing Koko was, a creative and resourceful ape who could vibrantly show us that great apes think and feel, all because she understood how to use aspects of “our” language. She could use signs of American Sign Language in meaningful ways to discuss not only her likes and dislikes but also her emotions. At one and the same time, she was an utterly special gorilla because of how she was raised and yet also an exemplar of what all our closest living primate relatives do — reason, feel and negotiate daily life through a complex set of social interactions.

Q: Did Francine Patterson get too close to Koko to perform credible studies?

A: Certainly there were cases of over-interpretations made throughout the years regarding Koko’s behavior and utterances that damaged the researchers’ credibility. Parading Koko around to give a climate-change speech is just one example. What concerns me more are the ethics of confining her in a highly unnatural world, one where she couldn’t live in a social group with other gorillas and where she was treated in highly questionable ways regarding her diet and medical care.

Q: How do you explain Koko’s broad and lasting cultural appeal?

A: Who among us hasn’t wanted to know what gorillas think, and for that matter, elephants, dolphins, our dogs and cats, chickens and cows? Koko allowed us a glimpse into a marvelous mind. She reached us all one way or another, as when she touched children’s hearts when a book went viral about her sadness at the death of her kitten.

Q: Should scientists pursue new sign language studies in apes like those conducted with Koko?

A: Full stop, no. Over the 46 years of Koko’s life, we have learned enough to recognize that it is imperative to focus on getting funding to move chimpanzees and monkeys confined to biomedical laboratories to retirement in sanctuaries. The last thing we need is to confine a great ape and train him or her to adopt aspects of our language.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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