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Experts Have Dissected Koko The Gorilla’s Eerie Message Made To Humanity In Her Last Years

Jan 13, 2022

Image: Koko the gorilla - stanford.edu/public domain
 
Koko the gorilla stole many people’s hearts during her lifetime, achieving fame for her apparent signing abilities according to scribal.com. Videos of her communicating with her hands took the world by storm, showing the great ape seemingly expressing her thoughts on different subjects. One of her final clips, though, contained a message for the whole of humankind — and it was quite chilling.
 
Lots of words
 
As a young gorilla, Koko was meticulously trained in a particular form of sign language. The researchers involved in this project eventually claimed she had a grasp of about 2,000 terms — an impressive vocabulary. Her skills meant the ape was often able to express the things she was feeling.
 
Much-loved
 
Koko died aged 46 in the summer of 2018. This news was greeted by a wave of sadness; as global media outlets reported on her passing, tributes flooded in. The story of the gorilla who’d learned to sign to express herself really seemed to resonate with lots of people across the world.
 
Rubbing shoulders
 
Over the decades, Koko graced the covers of popular magazines and rubbed shoulders with A-list celebrities. Her life was a source of tremendous fascination for people — when she signed her thoughts, people listened. So, when she had a message for all of us not long before her death, it was definitely worthy of note.
 
A message to mankind
 
Three years before she died, Koko starred in a video that really resonated with lots of people. And maybe that’s because it contained a message that seemed to be directly aimed at all of us. The gorilla was apparently expressing her thoughts on a profound subject, and it stopped a lot of people in their tracks.
 
Fireworks Child
 
But then, Koko had been blowing minds right from her earliest days. She arrived in the world on July 4, 1971, born at the San Francisco Zoo. At first, she was called Hanabi-ko, a term that means “Fireworks Child” in Japanese, a reference to the fact she was born on Independence Day. By the time the young gorilla was a year old, she was receiving lessons in sign language from Dr. Francine Patterson.
 
A good learner
 
After years of lessons, Koko apparently came to understand over 1,000 terms in sign language. She used these communication skills to express herself, including things she wanted. For instance, in the winter of 1982 she requested a cat for her Christmas present. Her carers gave her a doll, but she wasn’t happy with that.
 
Cat mama
 
Koko was disappointed with the toy, but she soon got her own way. When her birthday came around, her carers brought her a bunch of real kittens. She was allowed to choose one to look after, so she picked a white-and-gray furbaby. She called it All Ball and took great care of it.
 
The best of friends
 
Ron Cohn was part of the team overseeing Koko, and in 1985 he spoke to newspaper the Los Angeles Times about her relationship with All Ball. The biologist said, “They would play chase with each other and [Koko] would hold it and pet it... The cat reacted to her as she would a human, but she was pretty independent and would bite Koko or wriggle loose when she got tired of being babied.”
 
The blame game
 
Koko took care of All Ball, but she wasn’t above blaming the cat for her own misbehavior. One day, Koko tore a sink away from its place on the wall. But instead of owning up to her misdemeanor, she pointed towards the cat and tried to blame it. Using sign, she said, “Cat did it.”
 
Tragedy strikes
 
Sadly, Koko’s time with her feline friend wasn’t to last for very long. Only half a year into their companionship, All Ball was run over and killed. The gorilla was apparently distraught when she learned the news, as Cohn remembered. He said, “She started whimpering — a distinct hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad. We all started crying together.”
 
Koko’s Kittens
 
The loss of All Ball evidently hit Koko hard, but this wasn’t the last cat to be taken under her care. She looked after several more through the years, which captured a lot of people’s imaginations. In fact, the gorilla’s love of felines was even the subject of a book in 1990 called Koko’s Kittens.
 
Cover star
 
Koko had already achieved fame by the time that book was published, though. After all, she’d already graced the front pages of magazines. She was a cover star for National Geographic as early as 1978 before repeating the feat seven years later. This brought her to the attention of the masses.
 
Meeting Mister Rogers
 
By now a celebrity in her own right, perhaps it should have come as no surprise that Koko would eventually start hanging out with her fellow stars. The gorilla was supposedly a big fan of Mister Rogers, and she’d regularly tune in to watch him on television. And one day, she got to actually meet the man himself.
 
Robin Williams
 
Another one of Koko’s celeb pals was the late Robin Williams, to whom she was introduced in 2001. During that meeting, the gorilla and the comedian seemed to have a lot of fun. They were seen tickling one another, while Koko grabbed Williams’ glasses at one stage and donned them herself.
 
Expressing grief
 
When Williams passed away in 2016 Koko had to be informed of the news. Photos later surfaced online of the gorilla looking very sad, seemingly snapped after she learned of her friend the comedian’s death. Many people were touched by her apparent ability to understand and express as complex an emotion as grief.
 
Queen Koko
 
In lighter news, it’s reported that Koko had a habit of referring to herself as “Queen.” She started doing that when she was young, just a few years into her life. She would gesture with her paw, dragging it over her chest in a diagonal direction. This was mimicking a royal sash, which in her version of sign denoted “queen.”
 
Center of attention
 
According to Koko’s trainer, the gorilla hadn’t actually been exposed to the sign for “queen” very often. Speaking to magazine The Atlantic in 2015,  Dr. Patterson reflected, “It was a sign we almost never used! Koko understands that she’s special because of all the attention she’s had from professors, and care-givers, and the media.”
 
Touching the lives of millions
 
Throughout her 46 years, Koko really did capture many people’s hearts. So, when she died in 2018 there was an outpouring of grief. A statement from Gorilla Foundation summed it all up, saying, “Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”
 
COP21
 
Throughout her life, Koko got people to think about nature and humankind’s relationship to it. But perhaps the most poignant example of this occurred in 2015 when the gorilla starred in a video recorded for the Paris Climate Summit, a.k.a. COP21. In this clip, the great ape had a really important message.
 
A message for us all
 
Koko can be seen communicating in sign throughout the course of this footage. She appeared to be addressing the whole of humanity, expressing a message that was particularly relevant to the focus of the climate conference that was taking place. She was apparently imploring human beings to look after our planet.
 
What Koko had to say
 
Translated from her version of sign language, Koko’s message was as follows: “I am gorilla… I am flowers, animals. I am nature. Man Koko love. Earth Koko love. But man stupid… Stupid! Koko sorry. Koko cry. Time hurry! Fix Earth! Help Earth! Hurry! Protect Earth… Nature see you. Thank you.” And while Koko's choice of words communicated a lot, the foundation released a statement further explaining her position.
 
Needs to hurry
 
The Gorilla Foundation put out a statement alongside this video, stressing that Koko really was speaking about humans damaging Earth. A section of these remarks read, “Koko was clear about the main message: man is harming the Earth and its many animal and plant species and needs to ‘hurry’ and fix the problem.” But not everyone was convinced that the message was entirely Koko's.
 
A little suspicious
 
Some people were left utterly shocked by this clip. Seeing another animal echo their own concerns about how humans are treating the planet was quite a sobering experience for many. But the thing is, maybe this clip isn’t quite as clear-cut as it first appears. There are those, in fact, who are outright suspicious of it.
 
Out of context
 
For one thing, the full context of this video isn’t readily apparent. We can’t see who’s out of shot. Maybe a trainer is coaxing the gorilla to sign in a certain way? The video is also clearly edited heavily, so we can’t say for certain that Koko even delivered a coherent message in one go. Skeptics raised some valid concerns, forcing the Gorilla Foundation to respond.
 
Cut and paste
 
The Gorilla Foundation even admitted that the video wasn’t all it was made out to be. In its press release, the organization said the clip had been pieced together from several different takes. Of course, with careful editing, it’s easy enough to create “messages” that were never really intended in the first place.
 
Different interpretations
 
But for argument’s sake, let’s allow that both the edit didn’t fundamentally change Koko’s speech and that she wasn’t being guided by someone off-camera. Even then, we still can’t prove the gorilla was actually specifically expressing concern for mankind’s impact on the Earth. Her signs could be interpreted in many different ways, including one cynical take that some have suggested...
 
A cynic’s view
 
What would be the motive for orchestrating Koko's message? Well, some have argued that it’s quite beneficial for experts to play up the ability of gorillas such as Koko to express complex emotions. Stories like that garner a lot of attention, which in turn leads to more funding for research. But even still, experts studying primates aren't entirely convinced that they can communicate on the level claimed by Koko's team.
 
Expert opinion
 
One such skeptic is biological anthropologist, Barbara King, whose expertise lies in the behavior and emotions of primates. Given her background, she’s most certainly someone to listen to when it comes to whether or not Koko can really process things in the ways the Gorilla Foundation has long claimed. And for what it’s worth, she’s not convinced.
 
Difficult to grasp
 
Humans can sometimes project our own behaviors and quirks onto other species. But when we do this, we can fundamentally misinterpret the actual ways in which these animals function. A gorilla doesn’t have the same mind as us, and it’s unlikely to grasp a subject as complex as how humans impact the world.
 
Misleading claims
 
Even Koko’s signing abilities have been called into question. When she died, the media ran stories trumpeting her supposed proficiency of sign language. But as Dr. Adam Schembri from the University of Birmingham pointed out to the BBC, this can be a little misleading. Koko’s sign language was an altered form of American Sign Language (ASL), so it’s not true to simply say she had “mastered sign language,” as some news outlets claimed.
 
Ritualized use
 
Another expert in sign language is Gerardo Ortega, who took to social media to give his two cents. Posting on Twitter, Ortega wrote, “At most [Koko] ritualized the use of some signs about the here and now and used them only after... [her] trainer promoted her.” In other words, her capacity for language just wasn’t as sophisticated as might have first appeared.
 
A distortion
 
Professor Graham Turner from Heriot Watt University also piled in on the debate. He told BBC News, “Serious efforts to teach apes some signing began in the 1960s with researchers attempting to teach individual signs derived from ASL. And the apes did learn to use some hand gestures in this way. But it is a distortion to imply that Koko or any ape has ever learned to use a natural signed language like a human being.”
 
Face, body, and hands
 
Professor Turner went on, “These languages use the face, body, and hands in an integrated way, exploiting their multidimensional, spatial medium through the layering of simultaneous and extremely precise visual elements. So communication in ASL or any such signed language entails acquiring command of a far more complex system of linguistic expression.”
 
No proof
 
In layman’s terms, the argument runs that apes just don’t have minds capable of engaging in language systems as complex as the ones used by humans. At least, there’s no definitive evidence to prove that they can do so. As intelligent as she may have been, it seems Koko never really had the grasp of language she seemed to command.
 
Broken sentences
 
According to Professor Turner, even apes trained in sign don’t seem able to form entire sentences. They can appear capable of it from time to time, but the academic argues such instances only tend to occur when trainers encourage them. Then, people interpret these prompted signs as full-blown sequences of thought from the ape.
 
Cheapens the message
 
So, it seems likely that Koko never really understood what she was saying in her video for COP21. But even if that’s true, is it such a bad thing? The point of the clip was still pretty noble, so what’s the issue? Well, some people think it cheapens the serious message at its heart.
 
The other side of the coin
 
On the other hand, a lot of people will have seen Koko’s video. And maybe it resonated enough to make them think hard about how people are affecting the planet. In the end, it comes down to personal preference. Some people will think the video was a worthwhile exercise: others will disagree, regarding it as a publicity stunt trivializing an important issue.
 
A remarkable creature
 
No matter what, though, Koko really was loved by lots of people all over the world. And even if her sign language skills weren’t quite all they were trumpeted to be, she was still a remarkable animal. She undoubtedly did make lots of people think about humanity’s relationship with our fellow living creatures.
    



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