With news of the untimely passing of actor and comedic genius, Robin Williams, I recently came across this video of Williams meeting Koko, a sign language communicating gorilla, at The Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California.
What is so very striking is the immediate bond Koko developed with the actor. Koko understands around 2,000 words of spoken English and is fluent in a modified form of American Sign Language with a working vocabulary of more than 500 words. Watch her sign “tickle” to get Robin to reach out and tickle her under arms. She played “chase,” kissed his hand and even picked his pocket!
As it turned out, when they first met in 2001, Koko had been mourning the loss of her gorilla companion, Michael, for the previous six months and had stopped smiling. Her meeting with Robin that fateful day allowed her to sense the genuine kindness in Robin’s heart and she made a new best friend. At the end of the video, they settle into a warm embrace after many smiles and much laughter.
On Monday, the day the world was informed of Williams’ death. Koko watched as the phone call of the sad news was received by Dr. Penny Patterson and Dr. Ron Cohn at The Gorilla Foundation. Koko went over to Dr. Patterson with an inquiring look on her face. The doctor told Koko “we have lost a dear friend, Robin Williams,” to which Koko became quiet and thoughtful. By the end of the day, Koko’s lip quivered and her head turned down in a somber repose.
Animals mourn. They mourn fellow animals and humans they have had relationships with. If a being is able to love, they will surely mourn the loss of that love.
Williams had made a PSA (Public Service Announcement) for The Gorilla Foundation in 2003 in an effort to raise awareness of the plight and possible extinction of great apes. “But not only did Robin cheer up Koko, the effect was mutual, and Robin seemed transformed — from a high-energy entertainer, into a mellow, sensitive, empathetic guy, who also happened to be really funny” as written in a tribute to Williams on Koko.org.
“And when you remember Robin Williams, remember that he is not only one of the world’s most beloved entertainers, he is also one of the world’s most powerful ambassadors for great ape conservation.”
What a fitting eulogy for the early end of a well-loved celebrity.
All photos used with permission of Alex Doniach, The Gorilla Foundation