Born at the San Francisco Zoo, Koko the gorilla became a household name after her famous photo appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1978. The photo was iconic because Koko took the photo herself in a mirror, but she would go on to become something of a celebrity both in the United States and abroad. The Gorilla Foundation announced, per the Associated Press, that the “46-year-old western lowland gorilla died in her sleep at the foundation’s preserve in California’s Santa Cruz mountains” on June 19.
Koko became a household name after she began learning sign language with Dr. Francine Patterson as part of a Stanford University project in 1974 and ever since, the gorilla’s communication skills were loved nationwide. Koko was only 1 year old when she first began learning.
In 1990, Francine G.P. Patterson and Ronald H. Cohen published the paper, “Language acquisition by a lowland gorilla: Koko’s first ten years of vocabulary development,” that not only celebrated Koko’s aptitude for communication, but also the way language connects us to one another. The paper lists her first 50 words, including things like “more,” “toothbrush,” “candy,” “Koko,” and “swing.” In its conclusion, the paper states,
“…in many respects, gorilla acquisition and production of sign language appears to parallel that of the human child learning language, with the closest parallels to human children learning signs; however, the pace of gorilla language development has been significantly slower than that of the normal human child.”
Koko’s legacy was something much larger than her home in the San Francisco Zoo. The public saw its first glimpse of interspecies communication when Koko appeared on televised segments around the world speaking American sign language. In an Atlantic articled published in 2015, the first sentence is, “One of the first words that Koko used to describe herself was Queen. The gorilla was only a few years old when she made the gesture–sweeping a paw diagonally across her chest as if tracing a royal slash.”
This kind of introduction followed Koko, showing both her cognitive abilities and her personality together, and will no doubt follow after Koko’s death. In memory of Koko, we’re celebrating her life with this video of her having fun with her dear friend, Robin Williams.