How Koko The Gorilla Impacted Millions Throughout Her 46 Years of Life Without Speaking One Word
Few animals have made as big of an impact on the world as Koko the gorilla. She was famous for her knowledge of sign language, her surprising emotional depth, and her deep need for connection to human beings and other animals. Koko sadly passed away in her sleep on Wednesday, June 21, at the age of 46. Although she is no longer with us, she taught millions of people about what it truly means to live in harmony with other species–all without speaking a word.
Her story began on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. A year after her birth, she was unofficially “adopted” by researcher Penny Patterson, who wanted to embark on what would become a life changing experiment: she wanted to see if she could raise this baby gorilla to speak and understand American Sign Language.
Results were unprecedented! Over the next few decades, Koko mastered approximately 1,000 different signs. She learned how to combine different signs to describe new objects, she asked for things that she needed, she was able to express her emotions, and occasionally, she would even tell jokes!
Koko was not only known for her remarkable ability to sign but she shocked researchers when she was able to recognize herself in a mirror. She made the news several times when she met celebrities like Robin Williams and Mr. Rogers. Perhaps the quality that “humanized” Koko for so many people was her capacity to experience grief. When her first kitten, All Ball, died suddenly, she signed to express her sadness, and then she began to cry out and mourn.
Many of us do not realize that animals are emotional beings with thoughts and feelings of their own. Yet Koko opened many peoples’ eyes to the truth—animals can form strong bonds across species, they can feel the pain of loss, and in some cases, they can even understand language. Koko proved that we are truly all connected.
Most importantly, Koko’s incredible accomplishments illustrated exactly why the fight for animal rights is so important. If other animals can feel as deeply as Koko did, and if they are so much more intelligent than people have typically given them credit for, then we do not have the right to exploit them for our own benefit. Koko taught us all a lesson that we should not forget: if we give animals the love and respect they deserve, the world can become a better place.