Koko, the extraordinary gorilla who mastered sign language, dies at 46
Koko, the western lowland gorilla who gained worldwide fame for her mastery of sign language, has died at the age of 46.
She died in her sleep at The Gorilla Foundation preserve in California's Santa Cruz mountains on Tuesday.
Born in 1971 at San Francisco Zoo, Dr Francine “Penny” Patterson famously began teaching Koko sign language from an early age.
Koko learnt more than 1,000 signs, according to Patterson, and became part of a Stanford University project in 1974, inspiring the formation of The Gorilla Foundation.
The foundation paid tribute to Koko by praising the influence she had as a “primary ambassador for her endangered species”.
“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,” the foundation said.
They added her “capacity for language and empathy has opened the minds and hearts of millions”, however critics argued Koko didn't know what the sign language actually meant.
Koko featured in multiple documentaries and appeared on the cover of National Geographic twice.
Aged 19, Koko showed signs of having consciousness of self by successfully passing a self-recognition test (MSR), displaying “self-directed behaviour in front of a mirror”.
The book Koko’s Kitten, the true story of her friendship with a kitten first published in 1987, is still used in many primary schools worldwide today.
“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 continued.
Koko’s death has been met with an outpouring of grief on social media, where one wrote: “My heart is broken, she was part of my first grade classroom since 1994, I just can’t bear it.”
“This is heartbreaking news!” posted Tori Haines. “Thank you Koko for showing us humans what intelligence, love and compassion was all about. I have loved Koko since the beginning and will miss her forever.”
The Gorilla Foundation said it will continue to “honour Koko’s legacy” and advance its mission through ongoing projects, including conservation efforts in Africa, a great ape sanctuary on Maui, and a sign language application featuring Koko for the benefit of both gorillas and children.