|A Friendship Blossoms
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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
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
Koko and Penny share a special friendship.
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."