Not everyone knows the story of Koko, the smartest gorilla in the world. This beautiful animal was born in 1971 in a San Francisco zoo. Then psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson decided to adopt her to study at Stanford University.
The original idea was to do a linguistic experiment. Psychologist Francine Patterson wanted to teach Koko American Sign Language. If she succeeded, she could communicate with Koko and find out how a primate thinks.
After working with Koko for 43 years, the only conclusions we can draw is that she continues to amaze everyone who meets her. Her progress is impressive.
Not only did she learn perfect sign language, she also learned to send tender messages to the world. She has shown that she is about more than a few simple tricks.
This story was controversial from the start. At first, no one believed that Koko would be able to learn sign language. Everyone assumed they were the gestures Dr. Patterson showed her, could repeat, but did not understand its meaning.
dr. Patterson believed the opposite, and it showed in her patient instruction. The first sign that Koko did understand the gestures was the fact that she was creating new words.
An example is the word ring. Her teacher taught her the word “bracelet” and the word “finger,” but not the word for “ring.” One day, Koko combined the bracelet and finger characters to refer to the ring her teacher was wearing.
Today, Dr. Patterson that Koko knows 1000 gestures. She also understands 2000 English words.
And there are videos in which the gorilla pronounces onomatopoeia. In other words, she intentionally produces sounds to communicate something. Some believe that one day she might even be able to say a few words.
The wonderful story of Koko and All Ball
dr. Patterson often read stories to Koko. The gorilla’s favorite stories were Puss in Boots and a story about three kittens. Koko asked her teacher to read the stories again almost every day. To everyone’s surprise, she let Dr. Patterson found out one day that she wanted a cat.
Coincidentally, someone had recently abandoned three kittens near the farm where Koko lived. One of these kittens was a tailless female and Koko adopted her.
She called her “All Ball” in sign language. From that moment on, they became inseparable friends. She took very good care of her, they played together and Koko always kept a close eye on her.
After fifteen years of friendship, All Ball was hit by a car and sadly died. Patterson told the gorilla she would never see her friend again.
Koko showed in sign language that she was very sad. There is a video where she seems to sob when she is alone. This incident casts doubt on long-held ideas about what animals like Koko supposedly think. She was aware of death.
Researcher Maureen Sheehan interviewed Koko about what had happened. She replied in sign language that gorillas die “because of problems” or “because they are old”. She also indicated that after they die they go to “a pleasant place”.
When Sheehan asked her if gorillas are happy or sad after they die, Koko said they were neither. They just slept.
Koko’s emotional life
One aspect of Koko’s story that got a lot of attention and was captured on film was the relationship between Koko and the actor and director, Robin Williams. After All Ball died, Koko was very sad for a long time.
But she was able to smile again when Williams visited her and told her some jokes. She really liked the actor. When her caretakers told her of his death, Koko expressed deep sadness.
Another amazing thing happened when an expert attempted to explain climate change to Koko. She seemed shocked and very interested in the subject.
Then she gave a message to humanity using sign language. She asked us to take care of the planet. Not to be stupid. And she said, “Nature is watching.” This was also captured on film.
The experiment with Koko has shown not only that her species is very intelligent, but also that gorillas lead rich emotional lives. Moreover, it shows that they are capable of rational and moral judgments.
Koko’s story confirms what many of us have long felt: that animals and humans are connected and that we are more alike than we are different.