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Koko (born July 4, 1971, at San Francisco Zoo) is a Western Gorilla who, according to Francine 'Penny' Patterson, is able to understand more than 1,000 signs based on American Sign Language,[1] and understand approximately 2,000 words of spoken English.[2] She has lived most of her life in Woodside, California, although a move to a sanctuary in Maui, Hawaii has been planned since the 1990s.[3]

Koko is short for the name Hanabiko (花火子 lit. "fireworks child" in Japanese, a reference to her date of birth, the Fourth of July ?).


Use of language

Dr. Hashalaba of the Harvard Institute believes that Koko's use of signs, and her actions consistent with her use of signs, indicate she has mastered the use of sign language.[1] Others argue that she does not understand the meaning behind what she is doing, but learns to complete the signs simply because the researchers reward her for doing so (indicating that her actions are the product of operant conditioning).[4][5] However, the latter position is not consistent with the claims that Koko uses the language freely and in novel ways, even when there is no foreseeable gratification.[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 she has documented Koko inventing new signs to communicate novel thoughts. For example, she says that nobody taught Koko the word for "ring", therefore to refer to it she combined the words "finger" and "bracelet", hence "finger-bracelet".[7] William Shatner in his book Up Till Now recounts a meeting with Koko stating that while Koko knew the words for "water" and "bird" separately, Koko chose to combine these two words to describe a duck the first time she had ever seen the animal land on a lake. Similarly, Patterson says that Koko invented "drink-fruit" (melon), "water-bird" (swan) and "animal-person" (gorilla).

On April 12, 1998, an event promoted as an on-line chat with Koko took place on America On Line. The transcript of this event, available on many locations on the Internet [8], contains at least one instance of Koko making a statement resembling a sentence: "Lips fake candy give me"; uttered while Koko was trying to get Patterson to give her a treat. The last three words would constitute the use of an imperative verb accompanied by both a direct and an indirect object. It should be noted, however, that Koko does try many other, seemingly random, signs translated as "words" before and after this "utterance", seemingly in order to achieve the same goal - obtaining a treat from Patterson. It has also been noted that that Koko does not clearly seem to understand any language being directed to her in the transcript. Nevertheless, "candy give me" may be evidence that Koko can form a sentence.

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). This debate has been ongoing since the first ape sign language experiments with the chimpanzee Washoe in the 1960s. Other well-known signing apes include chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky and the orangutan Chantek. Gorillas and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) are relatively adept with certain forms of communication, whereas common chimpanzees and orangutans tend toward mastery of manual skills.

Koko's training began at the age of one. Patterson has assessed Koko's vocabulary at over 1,000 signs, which would place her among the most proficient non-human users of language.[11]

Most of the claims about Koko's language use center around her use of not sentences, but adjectives, nouns, and noun phrases. For example, Penny will give Koko a treat if she points to an apple and gives the sign for "apple" or "red."

Michael and Ndume

Patterson claims that Michael, a gorilla who lived with Koko for several years, also developed a broad vocabulary of signs, over 600, but did not become as proficient as Koko before his death in 2000. Michael's caregivers believe that he witnessed and remembered his mother's death at the hands of poachers, but was unable to clearly express the event. In the PBS Nature special Koko: Conversation with a Gorilla a group of Michael's signs is interpreted to be an attempt to convey a description of his mother being shot as he watched. While it was intended that Koko and Michael might produce a baby gorilla and teach it to sign, the two saw each other as siblings and did not mate.

Another gorilla, named Ndume, was selected by Koko from a group of videotapes shown to her by her "Mother" Penny, who played several tapes showing male apes of her species, in what may be described as an attempt at "video-dating." Despite these efforts, Koko and Ndume have also not mated. The Foundation is currently working to solve this, while Koko's biological clock still permits (possibly into her early forties).

Koko's cats

Although not unique, Koko is one of the few non-humans known to keep pets. She has cared for several cats over the years and Koko's relationship with All Ball was featured in the 1987 book Koko's Kitten (Scholastic Press, ISBN 0-590-44425-5), which was written by Patterson.

Other gorillas known to have cared for pets include Toto.

Sexual harassment

Three former female employees have claimed that they were pressured into showing their breasts to Koko. They alleged that Patterson encouraged the behavior, often interpreted Koko's signs as requests for nipple display, and let them know that their job would be in danger if they "did not indulge Koko's nipple fetish." Koko has been known to playfully grab both male and female nipples without warning or provocation. Patterson claims that Koko uses the word "nipple" to refer to humans because it sounds like "people".[12]

All claims of harassment have been permanently dropped as of November 21, 2005 after the foundation and the parties involved reached a settlement.[13]

Jody Weiner, Koko's lawyer, writes about Koko and sexual harassment in the book Kinship With Animals.[14]

In popular culture

Koko was the subject of the 1978 documentary Koko: A Talking Gorilla, directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Koko was also the inspiration for Amy the talking ape in the Michael Crichton novel Congo, and for Sophie from The X-Files episode Fearful Symmetry. In the Seinfeld episode "The Maid," George wants the nickname T-Bone but when he does not get it he throws his arms up in anger and gets the nickname Koko instead. Puddy also had referred to Koko the Gorilla in "The Dealership" by saying "Right, Koko. That chimp’s all right. High-five."

Koko is referenced in The Big Bang Theory episode 10, season 3, when Sheldon compares teaching Penny a little physics with Koko's learning of language.


  1. ^ a b Fischer, Steven R. (1999). A History of Language. Reaktion Books. pp. 26–28. ISBN 186189080X.,M1.  
  2. ^ Wise, Steven M. (2003). Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. Basic Books. pp. 216. ISBN 0738208108.  
  3. ^ "CHECK IT OUT: Gorilla project under redesign". The Maui News. 2007-10-01. Retrieved 2008-05-26.  
  4. ^ Candland, Douglas Keith (1993). Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature. Oxford University Press US. pp. 293–301. ISBN 0195102843.,M1.  
  5. ^ Blackmore, Susan J. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. pp. 88. ISBN 019286212X.,M1.  
  6. ^ Steinberg, Danny D.; Natalia V. Sciarini (2006). An Introduction to Psycholinguistics. Pearson Education. pp. 109–110. ISBN 0582505755.,M1.  
  7. ^ "Mission part 1: Research".  
  8. ^
  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: 72. doi:10.1016/0093-934X(78)90008-1.  
  11. ^ Gorilla Foundation - Gorilla Intelligence and Behavior
  12. ^ "Are gorillas using sign language really communicating with humans?". The Straight Dope. 2003-03-28.  
  13. ^ Sweetingham, Lisa (2005-11-25). "Women drop sexual harassment suit against gorilla's caretaker". CourtTV.  
  14. ^ Michael Tobias, Kate Solisti, ed (2006). Kinship With Animals. Tulsa: Council Oak Books. ISBN 1571781897.  

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.  

External links

Online video

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