Saturday, June 23, 2018

Communicating with Koko the Gorilla

"The Gorilla Foundation is sad to announce the passing of our beloved Koko." June 20, 2018
Koko was 46. 

A few facts about Koko the signing gorilla and how she created a shift in human empathy and ethics:     
- Psychologist Penny Patterson started a research project in 1978, with the intent of teaching an infant gorilla sign language. 


- Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo on Independence Day in 1971 and named Hanabi-ko,  "fireworks child" in Japanese. She was better known by her nickname.

- Patterson initially worked with Koko at the zoo, then she got permission to move Koko with her to Stanford. When Koko was five, the zoo demanded that she return for the gorilla breeding program.



National Geographic magazine featured Koko on its cover in October 1978. The photo, in an early selfie, was taken by Koko herself with the use of a mirror. 

- Patterson, concerned about Koko's ability to successfully return to the zoo, raised $12,500 to officially adopt her and agreed to find a male gorilla to mate with her.


- Koko eventually learned 1,000 signs and she also understood over 2,000 words of spoken English.

- Her vocabulary and syntax were on par with a 3 yr old. However, she was able to express some abstract, symbolic, and complex ideas. 

- Penny reported that Koko had learned gestures and signs from gorillas in the zoo the year prior to learning American Sign Language, believing that gorillas have an innate ability for that type of communication

When unable to understand some gestures Koko was making, Penny reviewed video tape from the zoo and Koko's brother could be seen making the same signs. 


- She created new signs for things. Koko loved plastic barrettes and made a new sign tracing a line on her head where she shore wore a barrette in her hair. 

- She made unsophisticated attempting to avoid blame by lying. For example, after breaking a sink, she signed, "cat did it".

- Koko used words like "bird" and "nut" as both descriptive and pejorative terms by changing the position in which the sign is made. She also followed the bratty human tradition of calling people she didn't like "toilet".



- Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was one of Koko's favorites. When Fred Rogers visited, she hugged him and then, following the format of his show, she took off his shoes.  

Robin Williams was another star Koko loved watching. He visited her soon after her gorilla companion Michael died. Penny reported that years later, when Robin died, Koko remembered the visit and signed about the loss. 



- All Ball was hit by a car and killed. When told, "she acted like she didn't hear us for about 10 minutes. Then she started whimpering, a distinct hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad. We all started crying together. 

- Koko asked for a kitten and was given a stuffed animal. She refused to play with it and kept signing "sad." A few months later, she was received a Manx kitten (a breed of cat without a tail) and named him "All Ball". Koko and All Ball were featured on the Nat Geo cover in 1985. 

- To try and meet the requirements set by the gorilla breeding program at the San Francisco Zoo, Michael the gorilla was moved from the Vienna Zoo to The Gorilla Foundation.  

- Michael was a bushmeat orphan. Penny reported that he was able to describe when his mother was killed in front of him as well as nightmares he had about her death.  
- Koko had a somewhat contentious relationship with Michael, possibly due to their living relationship which was markedly different than gorillas in the wild.  Michael died in 2000 from a heart defect.    

- In hopes that Koko would conceive, Koko selected Ndume, a 10-year-old gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, from several videos of potential mates. 

- Koko was unable to conceive and had a history of becoming upset and melancholy. She would play with dolls, mimic mothering activities including "teaching" them signs. 

- Penny Patterson's dissertation was published in 1979. Scientists were skeptical of her findings. She was accused of anthropomorphizing Koko's intentions and misinterpreting mimicked signs. Patterson limits scrutiny of her methods and results, and most of the scientific community remains doubtful of her language claims.  

- However, Koko had clearly learned complex human behaviors, expressed strong connections with others and was able to communicate on a level previously not thought possible. 

- Koko expanded the discussion on animal experimentation. As devoted as the relationship became between Koko and Penny, The Gorilla Foundation representatives made several statements about the initial lack of consideration for long-term consequences.  
"[We] weren’t planning a 40-year experiment. [We] were planning a four-year experiment and then like a lot of things in life, it takes on a momentum of its own." 
"If [Penny] did the experiment again today … her effort to integrate Koko with other gorillas would have been [greater]. She certainly regrets Koko not having a family and not being able to provide that for her."
Jane Goodall holds an orphaned chimpanzee. Science Museum of Minnesota
Jane Goodall holding an orphaned chimpanzee. 
- Several important field scientist at the time, including Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, were researching primate behavior and discovering complex, empathetic, and communicative primate communities. Koko became a popular and relatable ambassador.
- Dian Fossey and a gorilla she named Digit May 1977
Dian Fossey and a gorilla she named Digit 
- The research done by Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey also focused on the critically endangered big ape species caused by poaching, illegal sales, and environmental destruction.  Interest in Koko also increased conservation awareness.
- Brookfield Zoo gorilla Binti Jua rescues a three year old boy who fell into the enclosure 1996
Binti Jua, a Brookfield Zoo gorilla, rescues a toddler who fell into the enclosure.
- When asked if there were moral lessons to be learned from these primates. Penny discussed several examples including the Brookfield Zoo gorilla Binti Jua 
On August 16, 1996, when Binti Jua was eight years old, a three-year-old boy climbed the wall around the gorilla exhibit and fell 24 feet into the gorilla enclosure below. Binti walked towards the unconscious boy and carried him to a service door where he was rescued. Her 17-month-old baby, Koola, clutched her back throughout the incident. The boy spent four days in the hospital and recovered fully. 
headlikeanorange.tumblr.com Beautiful close-up of a mountain gorilla's face blinking his eyes
See head like an orange tumblr for more stunning wildlife GIFs.
"Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world." - The Gorilla Foundation

#Koko #Africa #Language #Animal #Endangered 



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