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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Koko died! But here's what you don't know.

Koko: July 4, 1971 - June 19, 2018
Koko was no ordinary gorilla... or maybe she was. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) changed the way we think about "creatures" who are near our genetic make-up but really, not like us. We teach our pets to sit, stay, lie down and more and we give them credit for understanding us, communicating in all manners of obeying and knowing what we think, but we have given them less credit for being as much like us as Koko and Washoe have done.

Koko with caretaker Penny Patterson
From the Los Angeles Times: "Koko's instructor and caregiver, Francine (Penny) Patterson,  reported that Koko was able to understand more than 1,000 signs of what Patterson calls "Gorilla Sign Language (GSL) in contrast to other experiments attempting to teach sign language to non-human primates. Patterson simultaneously exposed Koko to spoken English from an early age. It was reported that Koko understood approximately 2,000 words of spoken English, in addition to the signs.

"I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young," says Patterson, "and I've closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960 and "70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and language were not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans."

There are some scientific disbelievers but Patterson makes a strong case. And so do the many who have seen, interacted and conversed with Koko. First it was Washoe who noted a bird on the water and signed "bird" and "water." The schentific question was: Is Washoe simply noting bird and water separately or, not knowing the term, putting the two together to say water bird?

Not being a scientist, I vote for Washoe noting "water bird," and thus, cognitively, thinking like a human might. Then there was Koko who noted a ring on the finger of a visitor. Not knowing the word for ring, Koko signed "finger" and then "bracelet." Pretty good, huh?

This, from Wikipedia, was pretty convincing: 
Researchers at The Gorilla Foundation said that Koko asked for a cat for Christmas in 1983. Ron Cohn, a biologist with the foundation, explained to the Los Angeles Times that when she was given a lifelike stuffed animal, she was less than satisfied. She did not play with it and continued to sign "sad". So on her birthday in July 1984, she was able to choose a kitten from a litter of abandoned kittens
Koko selected a gray male Manx and named him "All Ball". Penny Patterson, who had custody of Koko and who had organized The Gorilla Foundation, wrote that Koko cared for the kitten as if it were a baby gorilla. Researchers said that she tried to nurse All Ball and was very gentle and loving. They believed that Koko's nurturing of the kitten and the skills she gained through playing with dolls would be helpful in Koko's learning how to nurture an offspring. 
In December 1984, All Ball escaped from Koko's cage and was hit and killed by a car. Later, Patterson said that when she signed to Koko that All Ball had been killed, Koko signed "Bad, sad, bad" and "Frown, cry, frown, sad". Patterson also reported later hearing Koko making a sound similar to human weeping. 
 In 1985, Koko was allowed to pick out two new kittens from a litter to be her companions. The animals she chose, she named "Lipstick" and "Smoky", were also Manxes. Koko picked the name after seeing the tiny orange Manx for the first time. When her trainer asked the meaning of the name, Koko answered, Lips lipstick.To celebrate her birthday in July 2015, Koko was presented another litter of kittens. Picking two, she named them Miss Black and Miss Grey.

In her lifetime Koko was visited by many notables. You'd have a hard time convincing Robin Williams, Fred Rgers, Betty White, William Shatner, Fle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Peter Gabriel and Sting that Koko was not reasonably fluent, understanding, charming, gentle and more.
Another indication that Koko and others before her are like us in many ways... they have been know to lie and cuss... but in a very modest and admitting way. 
And then who could deny that Jane Goodall didn't understand this potential many years earlier. "You cannot share your life with with a dog, as I have done in Bournemouth, or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings."
There are a number of other bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans that have shown advancing skills but it is Koko that has been the star of them all. She will be missed.

Here's a documentary on Koko and her amazing life... and the people around her.