Animals

Koko, The Gorilla Who Knew Sign Language, Has Died

The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org

Koko the gorilla, who became famous for her ability to use sign language to communicate, has passed away at the age of 46.

Taught how to sign by Dr. Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson, Koko worked her way into the hearts of millions of people around the world thanks to her empathetic personality. She showed everyone that not only can animals feel emotions, but they can also communicate with humans in ways we didn't always understand.

Koko and Dr. Patterson when Koko was youngThe Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org

Dr. Patterson began teaching Koko sign language in 1972 as part of her PhD. project at Stanford University. Those simple sign language lessons turned into an amazing friendship that lasted 46 years.

Koko was featured on the cover of National Geographic twice, including a powerful image of her mourning the loss of her pet kitten. It was worldwide news, and even spawned a children's book called "Koko's Kitten."

National Geographic

The giant gorilla was basically a child to Dr. Patterson, who never seemed to regret devoting her time to Koko.

“I don’t think I was made for [having kids]," she said in a documentary. "I think I was made for what I’m doing.”

The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org

Perhaps the biggest aspect of Koko's fame was her relationship with the late Robin Williams. Williams visited Koko at her home in 2004, and they formed an instant bond.

The images of Koko laughing while Williams tickled her could light up even the darkest soul.

"What happened when Robin visited is that Koko was actually in mourning for her lifetime companion Michael and it was Robin who brought her out of it," Dr. Patterson told Entertainment Tonight. "The first time she smiled since Michael passed was when Robin and her met."

The Gorilla Foundation

When Williams tragically passed away in 2014, and it seemed that Koko was in mourning for her friend.

"Koko became very somber, with her head bowed and her lip quivering," The Gorilla Foundation wrote in a press release.

The Gorilla Foundation/Koko

The Gorilla Foundation released a statement on Koko's passing:

Koko — the gorilla known for her extraordinary mastery of sign language, and as the primary ambassador for her endangered species — passed away yesterday morning in her sleep at the age of 46.

Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed.

[...]

Koko’s capacity for language and empathy has opened the minds and hearts of millions. She has been featured in multiple documentaries and appeared on the cover of National Geographic twice. The first cover, in October of 1978, featured a photograph Koko had taken of herself in a mirror.

The second issue, in January of 1985, included the story of Koko and her kitten, All Ball. Following the article, the book Koko’s Kitten was published and continues to be used in elementary schools worldwide.

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 foundation will continue to honor Koko’s legacy and advance our mission with ongoing projects including conservation efforts in Africa, the great ape sanctuary on Maui, and a sign language application featuring Koko for the benefit of both gorillas and children.

Even though Koko is no longer with us, there is no doubt that her legacy will live on forever.

Rest in peace, Koko.

Meagan has been a writer with Shared for two years and has an intense love for Netflix, napping, and carbohydrates. CONTACT: meagan@shared.com