Koko the gorilla is gone, but she left a legacy

Koko the gorilla
Koko, seen here showing Francine Patterson a flower, gained fame for learning sign language. The western lowland gorilla died June 19 at age 46.


When Koko died in her sleep in California on June 19, people throughout the world immediately began mourning the gorilla.

Koko was a charmer and undeniably smart. She took an unusual route to fame. Stanford University graduate student Francine Patterson started teaching Koko a version of sign language in 1972, the year after the infant ape was born. Patterson rapidly developed a deep emotional connection to Koko.

Patterson’s claims that Koko learned to communicate and converse with sign language in a humanlike way won the gorilla legions of fans but also attracted much scientific criticism. Patterson’s work with Koko came at a time when captive chimps were also receiving sign language training.

Science News spoke with anthropologist Barbara King about Koko’s legacy. King, of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., studies emotions and thinking in nonhuman animals. Her books include How Animals Grieve.

Q: What were your first thoughts upon hearing that Koko had died?

A: My first response wasn’t thoughts, but tears. After that, a reflection on how Koko taught us so much about the great ape mind, even while she paid a cost, in her own daily life, for our scientific curiosity.


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