Koko the Gorilla Communicates

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.

Behind the Gestures The foundation says Koko has a tested IQ of between 75 and 95 on a human scale, where a 100 is considered “normal.” Koko’s teachers are aware that some linguists are skeptical about Koko’s ability to communicate with humans. Some liguists suspect her trainers may be simply interpreting her gestures as the response they were looking for. But Kevin Connelly, the director of development for the Gorilla Foundation, says people who say Koko is just making random gestures are not willing to accept the facts that have surfaced when it comes to gorillas’ intelligence since this project started. “They’re speaking from a place of ignorance and not looking at the documentation,” says Connelly.

Patterson and Connelly say it’s important for them to move Koko to a new home in Maui for several reasons. Gorillas are endangered and Patterson says it might be the most dangerous point in all of history for the gorillas. There’s been an increase in the number of humans in the gorillas’ natural habitat across the world. Many of those humans have been using gorillas as a food source even though it’s against the law to do so. As a result, the foundation says it’s extremely important that the gorillas they work with reproduce.

Also, Koko’s biological clock is ticking. Just like human women, she too has a limited amount of time left to reproduce and she’s about to turn 30 years old. The oldest gorilla to have a baby on record was 37. The gorilla foundation says Koko is eager to have a child and she exhibits her desire to reproduce by trying to breast-feed her baby gorilla stuffed animals.

The Gorilla Foundation, established as a non-profit in 1976, has been trying to educate people around the world about the importance of protecting gorillas. It has created the Wildlife Protectors Fund (WPF), which has distributed a book about Koko called Koko’s Kittens in French and English editions throughout Africa. The foundation thinks the book, which it has made available on Koko.org, will encourage people to stop the “bushmeat crisis” — the slaughter of great apes and other protected and endangered wildlife in Africa for the commercial trade of their meat.

Breaking Boundaries Researchers on project Koko say they have been astounded by the gorilla’s progress over the years. They say they are most surprised by her ability to convey emotions through sign language and through bodily gestures. Koko’s desire to convey her thoughts has been exhibited in her effort to combine different signs to describe items she’s never seen before. For instance, Connelly says the first time Koko saw a mask, she signed two words together: “eye-hat.” The first time Koko saw a lighter she signed the words “bottle-match.” Researchers say deaf children just learning sign language also have the tendency to combine words that might describe an item they are not familiar with. Koko also conveys some of her emotions in her paintings. Her artwork was on display at Queens Theatre in the Park in New York this past October. “Each day with Koko provides new insight and experience,” says Connelly. Patterson, who has spent more than 25 years of her life by Koko’s side, says she is “humbled” by the gorilla. The entire foundation has learned a level of humility because Koko is constantly challenging what everyone thinks he or she already knows, Patterson said.