The Extraordinary Life Of Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks

Koko being given a kitten by Penny. Courtesy of © 2015 The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org/Ron Cohn
Josh Davis 11 Jul 2016, 10:53

At the height of her fame, Koko was a cover girl on National Geographic, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, and the talk of every scientist. Now in her mid-40s she drifts into retirement, spending her twilight years talking less and less. But a new documentary produced by the BBC in collaboration with PBS has recently had unprecedented access to Koko the gorilla, and the extensive archive documenting her entire life, and tells the amazing story of Koko: the gorilla who talks to people.

The incredible tale has its origins back in 1971, when Stanford University graduate Penny Patterson had an extraordinary idea. She planned to see if she could teach an ape how to talk, and when a female gorilla in San Francisco Zoo rejected her infant, called Koko, the opportunity arose. Four decades on and Dr Patterson is still running Project Koko, which saw her teach Koko how to “say” over 1,000 words using American Sign Language. But the project has not been without controversy.

The main issue surrounding the project, and the one that has plagued it for the 40 years it has been going, is the veracity of the claims about Koko’s language skills. The question comes down to whether or not she does genuinely know what the signs mean, or whether she has just learned that certain gestures will get her certain things. And without full cooperation, this is something incredibly tricky to verify. “It’s difficult because Penny and Koko have spent so long together that often Penny is almost the interpreter of Koko for the world,” director Jonathan Taylor told IFLScience. “Obviously, that is very difficult to verify for a passer-by or a lay person.”

Project Koko claims that she can talk about the future, rhyme, and even tell lies, but with only a handful of scientific papers having been published at the beginning of the project, there is scant hard evidence to prove these claims. The demand from the scientific community to provide more robust experimentation has been met with reluctance from Koko’s handler Penny Patterson. While many may deride her for this, it is perhaps understandable since Penny has in effect been Koko’s surrogate mother for over four decades.

Koko and Penny Patterson driving in the car. Courtesy of © 2015 The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org/Ron Cohn

“It would be like if you had a toddler,” says Bridget Appleby, who produced the new documentary, to IFLScience. “You wouldn’t want to sit them down every day in a plain and unstimulating environment and do a double blind test on them if you’re emotionally involved. Also, as Penny believes that Koko is talking to her all the time, to then sit down and do these very basic tests, I think Penny feels like it’s an insult to Koko’s intelligence.” It is unlikely there will ever be a definitive answer as to whether or not Koko can do what is claimed, yet the fact that it has raised the possibility, and that it has brought great apes to the attention of the public, cannot be underestimated.

But the aim of this latest look at Koko’s life is not to come to a conclusion on one side or the other, but rather to take a broader look at animal intelligence, and what it means. “The conversation that we were hoping that it would spark is about animal minds and what goes on, and how close to us they are,” explains Appleby. “But there is a whole other conversation around Koko’s life, and the ethics of how we treat animals.”

Ron Cohn, Koko and Penny Patterson in Koko’s trailer. Courtesy of © 2015 The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org/Ron Cohn

One of the most important things to have arisen out of Project Koko is the realization and awareness, not only in the scientific community but also of the general public, that animals – and great apes in particular – are intelligent, sentient, and emotional individuals. When Penny began her experiment of teaching Koko sign language in the 1970s, it occurred to a backdrop of other young women who had already begun redefining our understanding of ape intelligence, from Jane Goodall revealing that chimps use tools, to Birutė Galdikas unraveling the mysteries of orangutans.

Yet to that extent, it could be argued that the project has almost become a victim of its own success. One of the reactions to the film has been a sense of sadness, as the ethics of keeping a gorilla isolated from its peers for her entire life are questioned. “Her abilities have changed people’s views on how animals should live,” says Appleby, “and it is almost reflected back on her life that people then say: 'Well how could you keep an ape in isolation in that way?'”

 Koko on Penny’s shoulder at San Francisco Zoo. Courtesy of © 2015 The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org/Ron Cohn

But Koko is no longer like other gorillas. For the past 40 years, Koko has grown up with Penny – and Penny with her – to such an extent that the two are now inextricably linked. “Koko is so unlike other gorillas now that I really think she’d struggle to be put back with others,” says Taylor. “That ship has sailed.”

Instead, she now acts and behaves like a human in an uncanny way, copying the mannerism and gestures. A frequent observation of her is that many feel like at any moment someone is just going to stand up and remove the gorilla suit to reveal a person underneath, which is hardly surprising considering she has grown up learning from people her entire life. And it seems that she doesn’t just like to copy humans, Koko may fancy some of them, too.
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“I think she just tends to like British men,” jokes Taylor. “British men with a hairy chest, and you’re in!” When he first started filming, things didn’t go quite to plan. Koko started to become annoyed that while Taylor was wanting to make the documentary, he wasn’t paying her the attention she wanted. So he had to go back in the enclosure with her but this time without the camera. “She was just purring and very excited, and then started trying to undo my shirt for quite a while. Then she just felt my nipple for about 10 or 15 minutes.” 

Everything about Koko, and her relationship with Penny, is extraordinary. Whether or not she is able to talk to the extent that is claimed, one thing is undoubtedly true: The astonishing glimpse afforded by Koko into the life and mind of another species has been unparalleled, and as a result she has completely altered the way that many now look at other species.

The documentary Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks to People, premieres Wednesday, August 3 at 8pm ET on PBS in the US. For those in the UK, it is already available on BBC iPlayer.

Bottom image: Koko holding kitten. Courtesy of © 2015 The Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org/Ron Cohn

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