Koko, the remarkable gorilla who achieved international fame for being fluent in sign language and raising kittens, died in her sleep last Tuesday at 46 years old. Her death was unexpected despite her age.
She was born on July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo. Her full name was Hanabi-Ko, meaning “Fireworks Child” in Japanese, but she always went by Koko. She was a western lowland gorilla, which is considered a critically endangered species.
Francine Patterson began teaching Koko sign language as part of a Stanford University project in 1974. Patterson gained custody of Koko for her project, and they developed a special relationship that would continue throughout Koko’s life.
Patterson never had children, but it was said that she and Koko had a relationship that was like mother-daughter. They continued to work together, and by the end of Koko’s life, she knew over 1,000 signs and could understand more than 2,000 words of spoken English.
Koko became an international celebrity for her communication skills, appearing in many documentaries and twice in National Geographic Magazine. Her incredible ability to communicate with humans through Sign Language showed the world what intelligence and emotional depth gorillas have.
According to her caretakers, Koko very much wanted a baby of her own. They tried to breed her, but she would not accept her first intended partner since she regarded him too much like a brother.
In an attempt to find her a suitable match, they actually resorted to online dating! They showed her a series of apes on tape and she chose the one she liked best, a male named Ndume who was known for throwing feces at visitors. Unfortunately, she didn’t mate with him either.
Although she didn’t have any babies of her own, she had a great mothering instinct, so her caretakers decided to bring her kittens to raise instead. It’s unbelievable how gentle she was with her kittens. Check out the video below to see how much she loved those kittens!