Dinner Table Conversation: What Can Animals Do?

August 3, 2018
Koko signs “Love”

On July 4th, 1971, a very special western lowland gorilla was born at the San Francisco Zoo. Her name was Hanabi-ko (or Koko), which means fireworks child in Japanese. When Koko was a year old, her doctor, Francine “Penny” Patterson, decided to teach her sign language. In three years, Koko learned over 200 signs, and because Dr. Patterson also said the words while she was signing them, Koko mastered over 2,000 English words throughout her lifetime. There was no doubt that she was a very smart gorilla, but Koko’s claim to fame was more than her ability to speak sign language; it was also about her ability to communicate with humans and show empathy toward other species. She was a giant gorilla who gently cuddled and took care of her beloved kitten, All Ball. She had good laughs with Hollywood elites like Robin Williams, and made friends with Mr. Rogers. And while some scientists questioned her ability to communicate like humans do and thought she was merely mimicking the hand gestures of Dr. Patterson, there’s one thing that cannot be questioned, and that’s how she stole the hearts of everyone around her. On June 19th, Koko died in her sleep at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, where she spent most of her life. She was forty-six years old. Thanks for being you, Koko. We’ll miss you!

Koko signs “Smokey” to Penny holding cat “Smokey”