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A Conversation With Koko

A Friendship Blossoms 1 | 2

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.
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."

A Friendship Blossoms
Read about a remarkable bond

A New Home
Koko may be moving to a new preserve

All Thumbs
All about Gorilla Sign Language

Learn to Sign With Koko
Play our game!

Koko's Scrapbook
Flip through an overview of Koko's life

Get more facts about Koko and other gorillas

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