Koko the Gorilla

Last week I watched a documentary on Koko and her 45 year relationship with Dr Penny Patterson formerly of Stamford University. When Dr Patterson was working on her thesis, she planned to train a higher ape to learn sign language, after earlier work had shown that apes did not have the physical characteristics to learn human speech. Shortly after Koko’s birth, her mother died, and she has been in the care of Dr Patterson ever since.

At first the story was fascinating as claims were made of the gorilla’s ability to communicate in signs, and the research was praised for demonstrating the learning ability of gorillas, but also that they are closer to us than previously thought, hence helping animal rights activists to make claims for better treatment and conservation of our cousins.

But a senior researcher slowed down footage of them together and concluded that much of the so-called signing was merely mimicking that of Dr Patterson, which raised questions as to the relevance of the signing project. At the same time, research on higher apes in the wild showed that they had their own forms of sign language and body communication, so interest and funding shifted in that direction.

Dr Patterson claimed that Koko needed a mate, so they managed to find her a young male, but they became mere friends, and when he died, another male was obtained, with the same lack of passion shown.

By about half way through this programme, I was getting very uncomfortable with the story. Whilst Koko’s handlers claimed she was their friend, you don’t keep a friend in a cage, and lead her round on a chain. They claimed she needed constant care, that she couldn’t look after herself, yet all other gorillas manage just fine. Staff cooked carefully prepared meals. They gave her Christmas presents and she blew out candles on her birthday cakes.

I was cringing.

I feel so sorry for this poor creature stuck in limbo between two different types of higher apes. Her treatment by humans comes from another age. The world has moved on but there is nowhere for her to go.

And yet listening to Dr Patterson talk of their friendship, of Koko’s need for fulfilment by having a baby, I could not help but think she was referring to herself. She has devoted her life to the gorilla and had no children herself. When she spoke of Koko’s needs she seemed to be meaning her own.

In last week’s i paper Dr Patterson claimed kook had developed a crush on Benedict Cumberbatch after watching his films on DVD. The documentary’s producer Bridget Appleby claimed the gorilla is confused about her identity. That is quite an understatement.

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5 thoughts on “Koko the Gorilla

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by this story, but you are making me think. At one point they were given a lot of land in Hawaii for a natural habitat. What ever happened with that and why wasn’t Koko allowed to go there?

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    • I suspect she has been with humans so long she has never learnt how to be a gorilla so is unlikely to have been able to fit in, hence survive. It could also be that her handlers are not part of mainstream animal studies so may not have been considered. Especially since she seems uninterested in breeding, so could not be part of a project to increase their numbers.

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      • The Hawaii preserve was through the Gorilla Foundation, run by Penny Patterson and what’shisname. So it was intended for Koko and Ndume. Maybe even Michael–can’t remember the timeline.

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