RIP Koko, the gorilla who became almost human

Rest in peace: The name Koko is short for “Hanabiko”, which means “fireworks child” in Japanese.

Was it right to experiment on Koko? The superstar gorilla shot to fame after learning sign language. She had a unique life, but some think that she should have been left alone.

What’s happening

Koko the gorilla has died aged 46. She was taught sign language as a child, and was said to be as intelligent as a three-year-old human. Her ability to communicate with people made her famous: she met celebrities and was featured on the cover of National Geographic. She spent her whole life in captivity.

Find out more

In 1972, a young student named Penny Patterson wanted to know whether gorillas could use language. She taught Koko to sign, and eventually adopted her.

Koko’s behaviour was sometimes human-like. She could apparently sign 1,000 words. She loved cats and grieved when her pet kitten died. She even seemed to understand her own mortality. When asked where gorillas go when they die, she signed, “comfortable hole bye.”

The media loved Koko, but not everyone was convinced. Some experts believed that Koko was anthropomorphised. In their view, she did not really understand what she was signing; she just became good at copying human gestures. On top of that, they said the gorilla was not properly cared for.

Was Patterson’s experiment right or wrong?

Some say…

Wrong. Koko was a prisoner all her life. She suffered: her living conditions were poor, according to those who worked with her. And for what? Gorillas are gorillas, and should not be made to act like humans, yet some arrogantly thought that she could become one of us. This experiment was meant to teach us about gorillas, but it said more about us.

Others think…

Right. Koko has taught us some things for sure. We now know that gorillas can feel complex emotions, and learn at least some sign language. This is really important: it means that we humans are less unique than we thought. Plus, in Patterson, Koko had a lifelong friend and carer — not many gorillas can say that. The experiment was good and fair.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to spend your life caring for a gorilla?

Activities

  1. Imagine you could interview Koko. Come up with five questions for her. If you have time, try to learn how to ask them in sign language!

Some People Say...

“I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like, and I can’t say the same thing about people.”

Doris Day

What do you think?

Word Watch

Gorilla
Koko was a western lowland gorilla. The subspecies’ official name, strangely, is “Gorilla gorilla gorilla”.
National Geographic
A famous magazine that deals mostly with scientific and environmental issues.
Captivity
A “captive” animal is one that is not free in the wild. Koko lived in California.
Mortality
If something is “mortal”, that means it will eventually die.
Anthropomorphised
When we treat a non-human thing as though it were human, we “anthropomorphise” it.

Subjects

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