Adorable Gorilla Koko Signs Off

I wasn't ready for Koko the gorilla to die. She was just 46, so still youngwell past the upper age limit for a gorilla, but I'll miss her. She loved cats, told mildly amusing jokes, and put up with people, so she was a lot like your weird aunt.

Koko was believed to have had an IQ of between 75 and 95 and could sign more than 1,000 words. The average IQ of a human is around 90 to 110. She also understood spoken English.

Born at the San Francisco Zoo, the gentle, nearly 300-pound ape began learning sign language as a baby in 1974 from Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson as part of a Stanford University project.

All this time I thought Koko was just pretty smart for a gorilla, but her IQ is eerily close to a lot of human beings, some of whom hold high-ranking government positions.

What really set Koko apart -- again not just from other gorillas but from many vaguely human type people -- was her demonstrated level of empathy. Normally when you see gorillas at the zoo, they just ignore you or throw their feces in your general direction, but Koko really connected with people. Here's some footage of Koko with Fred Rogers. You can literally "catch the rainbow" of empathy.

Oh yeah, Koko really wanted a kid. They tried to set her up twice: There was Michael, whom Koko wasn't that into, and then Ndume, who wasn't that into Koko. There was talk (not really) of Tinder or the kinkier areas of Ashley Madison, but Koko decided to stick with her cats. She was devastated when some asshole ran over her first kitten back in 1985. You can see her reaction in the saddest video clip of all time that doesn't involve someone shaving off Anne Hathaway's beautiful hair.

Koko's "mother" of sorts was 71-year-old Francine "Penny" Patterson, who "raised" her and was her primary companion for 46 years. Like all longterm relationships, there were ups and downs: Former employees at the Gorilla Foundation filed a sexual harassment suit in 2005 claiming Patterson forced them to expose their nipples for Koko's benefit. And in 2010, Stanford primatologist Robert Sapolsky alleged that Patterson was just a big fraud who released a lot of "heartwarming films" but no "data" to back them up.

In his lecture, Sapolsky alleges that Patterson spontaneously corrects Koko's signs: "She would ask, 'Koko, what do you call this thing?' and [Koko] would come up with a completely wrong sign, and Patterson would say, 'Oh, stop kidding around!' And then Patterson would show her the next one, and Koko would get it wrong, and Patterson would say, 'Oh, you funny gorilla.' "

Fine, Professor Spoilsport might have a science-based point, but those films were pretty damn heartwarming. (The editrix won't stop yelling "CRY FRUIT" in the chatcave, which apparently is something she saw as a child about Koko, not knowing the sign for "onion," being the BEST POET IN THE WORLD. Which is probably a lie as well.)

Goodbye, Koko. Hope there's lots of kittens for you on the other side.

And now it is your OPEN THREAD.

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What is the sign language for "make it rain"?

Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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