The lowland gorilla who wowed scientists and the public alike with her mastery of sign language passed away on June 21 at age 46.
From the time of her birth, Koko was an instant animal celebrity. She was on the cover of National Geographic twice and became a symbol for those working to improve our understanding of animals and how we treat them.
In her later years, Koko stayed in the spotlight. As recently as 2016, she was making Instagram videos with the band The Red Hot Chili Peppers and even learning how to play the bass guitar with the band’s musician Flea.
“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 said in a statement.
Koko was best known for learning sign language. Dr. Francine Patterson famously taught a young Koko some simple words and phrases that helped launch a larger program at Stanford University in 1974.
Koko eventually learned to understand an estimated 2,000 English words and learned to sign 1,000 of her own. Patterson stayed with Koko for her entire life, and their relationship was chronicled in a 2016 documentary.
Another favorite celebrity of Koko’s was the inimitable Mister Rogers, who she shared some lovely moments with.
And while Koko was in many ways “adopted” by our collective culture, she mimicked human behavior in her own ways, famously asking for a pet kitten for Christmas in 1984. Her caretakers gave her a stuffed animal, but she held out for the real thing. She finally got her pet kitten a year later. She hilariously signed “obnoxious cat” when it playfully bit her.
Koko was an animal icon, but she was also more than that. Her contributions to science, communication, and understanding of the animal kingdom has been profound.
She had equally lasting effect on average people as well, creating empathy and compassion for creatures that were often portrayed as threatening. Her legacy is part of a larger relationship between humans and nature that is gradually improving as we educate ourselves about the amazing world that surrounds us.
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