Sign-lan­guage speak­ing celebrity Koko dies, aged 46

Pretoria News Weekend - - NEWS -

KOKO the go­rilla, whose re­mark­able sign-lan­guage abil­ity and moth­erly at­tach­ment to pet cats helped change the world’s views about the in­tel­li­gence of an­i­mals and their ca­pac­ity for em­pa­thy, has died at 46.

Koko was taught sign lan­guage from an early age as a sci­en­tific test sub­ject and even­tu­ally learnt more than 1 000 words, a vo­cab­u­lary sim­i­lar to that of a hu­man tod­dler.

She be­came a celebrity who played with the likes of Wil­liam Shat­ner, St­ing, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robin Wil­liams.

At her home pre­serve, where she was treated like a queen, she ran around with Wil­liams’s glasses.

Koko was not the first an­i­mal to learn sign lan­guage and com­mu­ni­cate, but through books and me­dia ap­pear­ances she be­came the most fa­mous. Yet there was de­bate in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity about how deep and hu­man-like her con­ver­sa­tions were.

Koko ap­peared in many doc­u­men­taries and twice in Na­tional Geo­graphic. The go­rilla’s 1978 Na­tional Geo­graphic cover fea­tured a photo that the an­i­mal had taken of her­self in a mir­ror.

“Koko the in­di­vid­ual was su­per smart, like all the apes, and also sen­si­tive, some­thing not ev­ery­one ex­pected from a ‘king kong’ type an­i­mal that movies de­pict as dan­ger­ous and for­mi­da­ble,” Emory Univer­sity pri­mate re­searcher Pro­fes­sor Frans de Waal said in an email.

“It changed the im­age of apes, and go­ril­las in par­tic­u­lar, for the bet­ter, such as through the chil­dren’s book Koko’s Kit­ten that many young peo­ple have grown up with.”

Koko watched movies and tele­vi­sion, with her han­dlers say­ing her favourite movies in­cluded the Ed­die Mur­phy ver­sion of Doc­tor Doolit­tle and Free Willy, and her favourite TV show was Wild King­dom.

For her 25th birth­day, she asked for and re­ceived a box of rub­ber snakes. In 1996, she even asked to be a mother. De­spite at­tempts by her keep­ers to in­tro­duce male partners, Koko never be­came a mother. In­stead, she had a se­ries of kit­tens as pets.

The first was named All Ball, given to Koko for her birth­day in 1984. Other cats fol­lowed af­ter All Ball’s death, but re­searchers re­ported that the go­rilla kept “mourn­ing” the orig­i­nal cat years later.

Koko’s real name was Han­abi-Ko, Ja­panese for “fire­works child”. She was born on July 4, 1971, at the San Fran­cisco Zoo.

Francine Pat­ter­son was work­ing on her doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion on the lin­guis­tic ca­pa­bil­i­ties of go­ril­las and in 1972 started to teach Koko sign lan­guage. Pat­ter­son and bi­ol­o­gist Dr Ron­ald Cohn moved Koko to their newly es­tab­lished pre­serve in 1974 and kept teach­ing and study­ing her, adding a male go­rilla in 1979.

In 2004, Koko used Amer­i­can sign lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate that her mouth hurt and used a pain scale of 1 to 10 to show how badly it hurt.

“Koko rep­re­sents what lan­guage may have been 5 mil­lion years ago for peo­ple,” Cohn said in 1996. “That’s the time that go­ril­las and hu­mans sep­a­rated in evo­lu­tion.”

Other sci­en­tists, such as Pro­fes­sor Her­bert Ter­race at Columbia Univer­sity, who raised and taught sign lan­guage to a chim­panzee named Nim Chimpksy, ar­gued in sci­en­tific and pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture that most of Koko’s con­ver­sa­tions and those of other pri­mates were “not spon­ta­neous but so­licited by ques­tions from her teach­ers and com­pan­ions”.

“Sci­en­tists have of­ten com­plained about pos­si­ble over-in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Koko’s sign lan­guage ut­ter­ances and the lack of proper doc­u­men­ta­tion of what she has said, when and how,” DeWaal said, adding that “coach­ing and in­ter­pre­ta­tion by the peo­ple around her” may have al­tered her mes­sages at times.

But the sci­ence, DeWaal said, was “ir­rel­e­vant to Koko’s pop-im­age… Koko’s pass­ing is the end of an era, and a gen­uine loss”.

Koko fre­quently asked to see peo­ple’s nip­ples, a habit that led to con­tro­versy more than a dozen years ago, when two care­tak­ers said they had been fired for re­fus­ing to bare their breasts to the go­rilla. The women set­tled with the foun­da­tion in 2005.

A video shows Koko grab­bing for Wil­liams’s chest area and Shat­ner’s groin.

Wil­liams, an­other San Fran­cisco Bay area leg­end, met Koko in 2001 and called it a “mind-al­ter­ing ex­pe­ri­ence”. The two held hands and tick­led each other in a widely shared video.

“We shared some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary: laugh­ter,” he said. He called it “awe­some and un­for­get­table”.

Wil­liams com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2014.

Pat­ter­son later said she hadn’t planned on telling Koko about Wil­liams’s death, but the go­rilla overheard a con­ver­sa­tion and then later “mourned” the ac­tor by go­ing silent and sullen.

Koko knew about death, pri­mary re­searcher Pat­ter­son said in 2015, re­lay­ing in The At­lantic a con­ver­sa­tion Koko had with an­other care­taker:

“The care­giver showed Koko a skele­ton and asked: ‘Is this alive or dead?’ Koko signed: ‘Dead, draped.’ ‘Draped’ means ‘covered up’. Then the care­giver asked: ‘Where do an­i­mals go when they die?’ Koko said: ‘A com­fort­able hole.’ Then she gave a kiss good­bye.” – AP

Koko the go­rilla loved cats and had a se­ries of them.

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