From The Editors

KOKO: The Famous Gorilla Who Mastered Sign Language Dies Aged 46

Koko, a western lowland gorilla, who was born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, died peacefully in her sleep at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in California, on Wednesday.

The two-time cover girl for National Geographic was 46 years old.

Her death marked the end of a rather full life, spent in learning the art of communicating in sign language; making friends that included a couple of celebrities – the late Robin Williams being one of them; and appearing in numerous documentaries, to recall a few of the lovable primate’s achievements.

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the Gorilla Foundation said in a statement. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

Born Hababi-ko, which in Japanese means “Fireworks Child,” Koko spent her early life under the tutelage of Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, learning how to communicate through hand signs.

In 1974, Dr. Patterson and her long-time research associate, Dr. Ronald Cohn, moved the Koko project to Stanford, two years before the two illustrious researchers co-founded the Gorilla Foundation – a non-profit organization established with the purpose of purchasing Koko from the San Francisco Zoo.

After Koko’s purchase, the foundation continued to extend its full support to Dr. Patterson in her work with Koko, which involved teaching the primate the American Sign Language (ASL).

A second western lowland gorilla named Michael became part of the project before the Gorilla Foundation was relocated to the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1979.

A 400-pound male gorilla named Ndume – who was born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1981 – was also included in the Gorilla Foundation ( in 1991, when he was just 10 years old and already a father of three.

One of the two pictures that featured on the National Geographic cover was, in fact, clicked by Koko, herself, in a mirror; it was the October 1978 issue of the National Geographic.


Koko’s love for cats led her to adopt a kitten, which was presented to her on her fourteenth birthday, in 1985.

As matter of fact, Koko had chosen the grey and white little bundle of fluffy fur herself, from a litter of kittens that was brought to her by the Foundation’s researchers.

Not only did Koko choose the kitten but she also named it, calling it All Ball, apparently because of the feline’s resemblance to a little ball and Koko’s penchant for rhyming words.

Koko’s love for All Ball was nothing less than a mother’s love for her offspring, which became evident in the way she nurtured her little prize; she is even believed to have tried to nurse All Ball on, at least, one occasion.

When All Ball was tragically killed by a car in 1984, Koko was devastated.
“She started whimpering — a distinct hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad. We all started crying together,” Dr. Cohn told the Los Angeles Times in 1985.

Here’s what Koko told Dr. Patterson in sign language when she asked the gorilla what had happened to All Ball:

“Cat, cry, have-sorry, Koko-love.”

And, here’s the January 1985 National Geographic issue, which featured Koko for a second time, this time showing her with All Ball and also including a story of the primate and her feline friend.


However, Koko would go on to have many other feline friendships along the way.

Dr. Patterson even wrote a children’s book called “Koko’s Kitten,” in 1990, in which she told the story of the primate-feline love and companionship.

In 1998, in what was touted as the first “interspecies” chat, Koko communicated with 10s of 1000s of online participants with the help of a human sign language interpreter, conveying messages like “I like drinks.”

Koko met actor Robin Williams as recently as 2016 and the two hit it off from the word go, laughing and playing together, more than happy to be in each other’s company.

When she heard of William’s death, who committed suicide that same year, she became “extremely sad,” bowing her head and communicating the word “cry” in the only language she knew, according to a Gorilla Foundation blog post.

Koko, who according to her keepers knew a smattering of spoken English, too, was one of three primates in the world who could communicate with the help of sign language, the others being a male orangutan named Chantek in Atlanta, and Washoe – a female chimp in the Washington State.

“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,” said The Gorilla Foundation.

Rest in Peace, Koko.

Reactions on Twitter

Leave your vote

6 points
Upvote Downvote

Total votes: 6

Upvotes: 6

Upvotes percentage: 100.000000%

Downvotes: 0

Downvotes percentage: 0.000000%

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *