Koko, the Gorilla Who Knew Sign Language, Has Died


Koko, the gorilla who mastered sign language, raised kittens and once playfully tried on the glasses of the late actor Robin Williams, has died.

The western lowland gorilla was selected as an infant by animal psychologist Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson, who developed a language research project created to teach a modified form of American Sign Language, known as "Gorilla Sign Language" or GSL. Shortly after, Francine "Penny" Patterson, then a 24-year-old graduate student at Stanford University, began working with Koko as part of her doctoral research, known as Project Koko.

Koko's capacity for language and empathy opened the minds and hearts of millions of people, the foundation said. Yet there was debate in the scientific community about how deep and human-like her conversations were.

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Koko's legacy was something much larger than her home in the San Francisco Zoo. She eventually understand more than 1,000 signs and approximately 2,000 English words. Koko has helped increase our understanding of animals' ability to communicate and to feel varied and intense emotions, so her contributions to science and mankind more broadly are invaluable. The beloved gorilla inspired generations of children and adults with her compassion and playful nature, reminding us that we are not so different from our fellow mammals.

This kind of introduction followed Koko, showing both her cognitive abilities and her personality together, and will no doubt follow after Koko's death. The public saw its first glimpse of interspecies communication when Koko appeared on televised segments around the world speaking American sign language. The second, in January 1985, included the story of Koko and a kitten, All Ball, that lived with her. Patterson's book Koko's Kitten followed the magazine article's publication. She also guested on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", an encounter which was excerpted in the current documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"