Koko, like most animals, knows what she wants and what she likes. But she has a talent that separates her from the rest of the wild kingdom — she can communicate her wants, needs and feelings to humans quite articulately.
Koko, the first gorilla to have mastered sign language and inter-species communications is one of an endangered species, and according to the Gorilla Foundation, she actually understands what that means. The foundation says the lowland gorilla has a “vocabulary” of over 1,000 signs and understands approximately 2,000 spoken words in English.
Born in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, Koko learned to communicate with people under the tutelage of Francine Patterson, the foundation’s president and research director. Patterson began caring for and teaching Koko when the Gorilla was just a year old. For the last few years, the Gorilla Foundation has been working to move “Project Koko” to an environment that mirrors what would be considered a natural gorilla habitat. Seventy acres of land have been secured for the project in Maui, Hawaii, but more money must be raised in order to make the transition. Patterson says she and her colleagues hope to do this within the next 18 to 24 months. “She deserves a climate that is warm and private,” says Patterson. Koko currently lives at the foundation located Northern California.
Hopes for a Family The foundation hopes Koko will feel more comfortable in a private, natural environment and that she might begin to mate with another gorilla named Ndume. Koko met Ndume several years ago, after seeing him on what might be described as a “video-dating” tape. After watching a number of possible male suitors on tape, Koko kissed the television screen when Ndume’s mug popped up. Researchers on Project Koko say they will continue to research Koko and her babies if she does reproduce. Researchers had hoped that Koko would mate with another gorilla who joined their Gorilla Language Project just a few years after Koko. The other gorilla, Michael, became more like a sibling than a mate, however. Michael has since passed away and that loss was very difficult for Koko to get through, according to her caretakers.
The Gorilla Foundation plans to provide Koko and Ndume with privacy once they move to Maui. Nonetheless, the foundation still wants humans to have the chance to observe the gorillas so people might develop a better understanding of these animals and their importance. The foundation plans to accomplish this task via a high-tech visitor’s center of sorts, fully equipped with closed-circuit television and some interactive elements that are yet to be determined at this point. Researchers are currently looking for a high-tech company that’s willing to partner with them in an effort to develop such an outlet for animal enthusiasts.