Koko the Gorilla Leaves Us With These Important Life Lessons

Just as Koko mourned for her dearly departed four-legged and two-legged friends, people around the world have been saddened by the death of the famous western lowland gorilla.

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the Gorilla Foundation said in a June 20 press release announcing her death. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

During her lifetime, Koko learned more than 1,000 words in sign language and understood over 2,000 words spoken to her.

Along with Koko’s amazing ability to communicate with humans, the Gorilla Foundation hopes that she will be remembered as an ambassador for the critically endangered western lowland gorilla.

In the wild, these gorillas live in African rainforests. They are “under siege,” National Geographic reports, due to forest loss, which destroys their habitat and makes them victims of hungry people who kill them for their meat.

Koko might be most fondly remembered for her 1983 interaction with a kitten she named “All Ball.” When All Ball was killed by a car two years later, Koko mourned for months. She signed the words “sad bad trouble” when asked about All Ball.

Twenty years later, the staff at the Gorilla Foundation presented Koko with a box full of kittens. She picked out two, named them “Ms. Gray” and “Ms. Black,” and told the staff they were her babies.

Koko, who spent her entire life in captivity, never had offspring of her own, although she did have male gorilla companions. When her best friend Michael died unexpectedly in 2000, Koko mourned for months and refused to smile. To help cheer her up, Robin Williams paid her a visit, and it was magical.

Years later, when Koko was told about Williams’ death, she grieved just as she had for All Ball and Michael. “Koko became very somber, with her head bowed and her lip quivering,” the Gorilla Foundation reported.

Koko was born on the Fourth of July in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. She was named Hanabi-ko — “fireworks child” in Japanese – but was better known by her nickname.

When she was a year old, she was temporarily loaned to psychologist Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson for a interspecies communication project at Stanford University. When the zoo wanted Koko back for breeding purposes, Patterson was able to raise the funds to adopt her.

Patterson taught Koko an adapted version of American Sign Language that she called Gorilla Sign Language (GSL). Communicating this way, Koko was able to respond and react to human emotion and describe her own feelings.

Because of these skills, Koko soon became famous worldwide. She appeared on the cover of National Geographic two times. Her first cover photo was snapped by Koko herself.

Koko’s skills extended beyond sign language. In 2012, she learned how to play a recorder, demonstrating not only her intelligence but her ability to control her breathing.

“That’s a knockout conclusion because scientists have thought that humans alone, out of all the primates, can gain skillful, voluntary control over the act of breathing,” wrote anthropologist Barbara J. King.

“I’m totally aware of how blessed and magical my life has been with her,” Patterson told ABC News. “She was perfect. That’s my sense. She taught me so much.”

Some skeptics questioned whether gorillas really can communicate the same way as humans do. Herbert Terrace, a psychologist who worked with a chimpanzee named Nim in a similar interspecies language study, wrote in 1980 that Nim seemed to be more motivated by the desire to obtain an object or engage in an activity “than a desire to exchange information for its own sake.”

As for Koko mourning Williams’ death, “How much are we projecting ourselves onto her and what are we reading into her behaviors?” asked Slate. “Animals perceive the emotions of the humans around them, and the anecdotes in the release could easily be evidence that Koko was responding to the sadness she sensed in her human caregivers.”

Still, even skeptics concede that Koko’s ability to communicate with humans is “a testament to primate cognition,” as Slate called it.

Mary Lee Jensvold, who’s now a professor in the Primate Behavior and Ecology Program at Central Washington University, was Koko’s caretaker in the 1980s. Koko herself interviewed Jensvold for the position.

“It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life,” Jensvold told the Los Angeles Times. “It was really an amazing experience to meet another species and have a conversation with her.”

However, Jensvold strongly feels that apes should no longer be kept in captivity for the purpose of learning sign language. “They end up being a displaced person, if you will,” she said. “They have no home. … We can give them lots of things, but we can never give them their freedom. So I feel strongly that the research should never be replicated, ever.”

Koko’s “capacity for language and empathy has opened the minds and hearts of millions,” the Gorilla Foundation stated.

During these troubling times, here’s hoping this amazing gorilla’s compassion truly does inspire some human beings to open up their hearts. Rest in peace, Koko.

Photo credit: KPIX CBS SF Bay Area/YouTube


hELEN h10 days ago


Marie W
Marie W1 months ago

Thank you for sharing

Karen N
Karen N4 months ago

Poor Koko! . . . So sad! . . . On the one hand it is good that Koko proved the abilitiy to learn sign language but on the other hand no animal should have to prove themselves to humans. It is humans that need to develop compassion for animals and respect ALL animals for who they are . . . Animals should not be exploited, harmed or subjected to tests, research or have to prove themselves to humans.

I fully agree with the following paragraph from the end of the article . . .

However, Jensvold strongly feels that apes should no longer be kept in captivity for the purpose of learning sign language. "They end up being a displaced person, if you will," she said. "They have no home. . . . We can give them lots of things, but we can never give them their freedom. So I feel strongly that the research should never be replicated, ever."

Ann B
Ann B4 months ago

please flag past member they are a spammer and have been reported..check you friends list they may already be there--hard to get them OUT

Ann B
Ann B4 months ago

this was great and so was Robin Willliams-- both sadly missed..BUT the entire life in captivity was wrong

hELEN h4 months ago


Carole R
Carole R4 months ago

He will be missed. RIP

Danuta W
Danuta W6 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

hELEN h7 months ago


Anna R
Past Member 7 months ago

Thanks for this