A Conversation with Koko

A Friendship Blossoms

It was supposed to be a short-term research project. Instead, it became a lifetime of learning. And, along the way, people learned to see gorillas in a whole new light. A CONVERSATION WITH KOKO tells the remarkable story of Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson’s nearly 30-year relationship with Koko, a western lowland gorilla she taught to communicate in sign language. Through interviews and revealing historical footage, A CONVERSATION WITH KOKO documents the flowering of this most unusual friendship, which paired a gorilla infant with an inquisitive graduate student interested in animal intelligence and communication. It turned out to be a landmark alliance.

Koko and Penny share a special friendship

Koko and Penny share a special friendship

In 1971, Patterson was a psychology graduate student at Stanford University in California. Koko was a newborn struggling for life at the San Francisco Zoo. But the young ape — named Hanabi-Ko, Japanese for “fireworks child” in honor of her birth on the 4th of July — managed to pull through. Indeed, by her first birthday she was mature enough for her first meetings with Patterson, who planned to spend just several years working with the ape in a communications experiment.

In those early days, Patterson was intent on finding out whether Koko could learn American Sign Language, a complex set of gestures pioneered by the deaf. Patterson would patiently make the sign for “drink,” for instance, then help Koko’s hand form the word. The gorilla proved an able pupil. Within weeks, Koko was surprising observers by using the signs for “eat,” “drink,” and “more.” Her vocabulary quickly grew to dozens of signs — some customized into a dialect Patterson dubbed Gorilla Sign Language. Soon, news of the “talking gorilla” was making worldwide headlines.

Koko was more than a media curiosity. She was a living challenge to the conventional stereotype that gorillas were slow, stupid apes ambling through the forests. In her kind, soulful eyes, millions of people saw wisdom and intelligence. For the first time, they considered just how similar they were to this surprisingly charismatic creature, one of humankind’s closest relatives on Earth.

While some skeptics question the extent of Koko’s abilities to communicate with humans, Patterson’s work has done much to dispel the idea that gorillas lack intelligence or personality. “Koko’s popularity changed everything,” recalls one researcher who has studied the apes for decades. “She put a friendly face on an animal that had for too long attracted fear, loathing, and disrespect — and helped build public support for protecting endangered wild gorillas.”

Today, Patterson and the 28-year-old Koko continue to redefine the gorilla’s image — and our own. Koko has learned more than 1,000 words. And Patterson has encouraged another little-known gorilla ability: art. Koko and a younger male gorilla who lives with her, Michael, appear to create paintings inspired by their daily experiences at their research facility in California. For instance, Michael painted a black-and-white canvas of his dog.

Koko has formed emotional attachments to kittens.

Koko has formed emotional attachments to kittens.

The creative urge isn’t the only thing that gorillas may share with humans. Patterson and her colleagues — who carefully document the gorillas’ daily behavior and use of signs in an effort to understand how they communicate — have also shown that gorillas experience a range of emotions. There was joy, for instance, in the attachment that Koko formed with a small gray and white tabby kitten, and grief when the kitten was killed in an accident. And there seems to be longing, too, as Koko has expressed a wistful interest in having a baby of her own.

So far, however, efforts to set the 5-foot-tall, 300-pound Koko up with an eligible bachelor have failed. The first suitor, Michael, has become more like a brother. Another male, picked through an extraordinary form of video-dating that allowed Koko to look over her options and make a choice, has yet to become a love interest. That may be because Koko’s current living arrangement, set on a 7-acre plot in a cool, rainy redwood forest, doesn’t allow for the kind of courting that occurs in larger groups of wild gorillas. But some help may be on the way: Patterson would like to move Koko and the two males to a 70-acre refuge on the Hawaiian island of Maui on land donated by the Maui Land and Pineapple Company, where the vegetation and weather is more like her African homeland.

But for the moment, Koko remains in northern California, continuing to amaze those who have come to know her, whether in person or through books, films, and news stories. Using her hands and her eyes, Koko has taught us that we should never underestimate the remarkable creatures who share our world. And her story reminds us that friendships can often bridge seemingly vast gaps, such as the one between a young student and a toddling gorilla.