Koko's Kitten, Koko's Story, The Eduction of Koko all by Dr. Francine Patterson


Last night when I heard about the death of Koko, the lowland gorilla who was educated to communicate through American Sign Language by Dr. Francine Patterson, I went numb with grief. I have followed the life of Koko, her two gorilla companions, Michael and Ndume, as well as Dr. Patterson for forty years. I am a proud card carrying member of the Gorilla Foundation, and have donated money to help feed and care for Koko, to protect the endangered and precious gorillas in the wild, and have devoured every book I could find on the subject. My family has given me stuffed replicas of my favorite gorilla, tee-shirts emblazoned with Koko's art on them, and I have received the magazines updating me on Koko's development for decades.

There are some people out there who don't believe that Koko could communicate through ASL, however. But I do; my husband and I had the enchanting experience of meeting Koko and Dr. Patterson at their small preserve in Woodside, California in the summer of 1982. Visiting the gorilla is not like going to the San Diego Zoo where you pay a fee and can observe the animals kept within their confines. Our visit to meet Koko was permitted due to my graduate studies at Rutgers. I queried Dr. Patterson if we could come to meet Koko, and she wrote back that yes, we would be allowed a visit, but we had to provide documentation that we had been tested for tuberculosis, to which gorillas are highly susceptible.

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I contacted Dr. Patterson on the night before our visit for directions (no cell phones, no GPS, no map was going to show us where in the hills of California we were going to find the Gorilla Foundation). Dr. Patterson explained how to find them, and she said, “When you think that you are absolutely in the wrong place, you're there.”

These proved to be very fine directions, and just as I was sure that we were lost, we found a fence with a small sign on it that said, “Gorilla Foundation.” We drove in, and there we saw Koko, kept in a very large play area with a cage around it. Although Koko was tame, gorillas do not understand their own strength and could hurt someone without intending to do so. We were greeted immediately by Dr. Patterson, who carried a tape recorder with her and taped every conversation that occurred, documenting all discourse diligently.

Another couple joined us; they were from Canada. We stood near an apple tree, and Koko meandered over to check out her curious visitors. The first thing that I noted about her was how bright and intelligent her eyes were. She was interested in her world, and very funny. Koko addressed the Canadian woman by pointing at her. “You,” Dr. Patterson translated. Koko put her hand under her armpit and made gestures like she was scratching. “Tickle,” said Dr. Patterson. Then Koko pointed to herself. “Me!” exclaimed Dr. Patterson.

The Canadian woman responded verbally. “I would love to tickle you, Koko, but I can't reach your foot.”

With that, Koko plopped onto the ground and put her foot up to the fence. The Canadian woman tickled the delighted ape's foot, and Koko grinned with satisfaction. In that moment, I became a believer. The gorilla absolutely understood the spoken word.

Then Koko got back on her feet and pointed to herself. “I,” said Dr. Patterson. Koko pointed to her armpit again. “Tickle,” translated Dr. Patterson. Koko then pointed to the guest, and Dr. Patterson said, “You!”

The Canadian woman said, “Okay, Koko, but I have to take off my shoes and socks.” Koko waited patiently while her visitor stripped off her footwear and place her pale foot against the fence. Koko grinned as she rubbed her thick fingers over the Canadian woman's foot. Tears came to my eyes when I witnessed this remarkable communication between Koko and her foreign guest.

Then Koko approached my husband, Tom, and me. Tom sported a lovely mustache in those days, and one of Koko's friends, Ron, wore a similar style mustache. At first Koko thought Tom was her friend and became very happy to see him. Then she noticed an abundance of apples that had fallen from the tree. She ignored me and flirted with Tom. “Apple there, Apple there,” she signed by rubbing her cheek and pointing to the apple. Dr. Patterson said that it was okay to give Koko the treat of a home grown apple.

Although Michael, the second gorilla that Dr. Patterson had acquired as a potential mate for Koko, was on the premises, his behavior was deemed too unpredictable for company so we did not get to meet him. While I was disappointed not to see the handsome, young male, I was elated to have spent time with the gorilla who became world renowned for her love of a kitten named “All Ball,” and her relationships with celebrities like Mr. Rogers, Robin Williams, and Betty White.

Koko was so much more than a lowland gorilla who was born in captivity in the San Francisco Zoo on July 4, 1971. Koko was an ambassador of good will between humankind and the great ape. She became a symbol for the preservation of her distant relatives who are endangered highly in Africa. She was a prolific painter, teacher, and lover of animals and friends.

I can't imagine the pain that Dr. Patterson is experiencing after the tremendous loss of her best friend. Koko died in her sleep a few nights ago at the age of 46. Unfortunately, the dream of having Koko conceive her own child never came to fruition, largely due to the lack of privacy that their California home availed. The dream of a move to a plantation in Hawaii for a more peaceful environment and better climate, never materialized and so we are bereft of an offspring of this truly remarkable creature.

If you are interested in books about Koko, I recommend the classics Koko's Story and Koko's Kitten, both written for children. Adult readers can enjoy The Education of Koko where Dr. Patterson tells of her early struggles to procure custody of Koko to conduct the now famous experiment of teaching the gorilla to communicate with humans.

Every year at Christmas I receive a Koko calendar, which I treasure. I have my periodicals sent from the Gorilla Foundation saved and treasured as Koko's vocabulary grew increasingly over the years. I will be sad when the calendar comes this year; I'm sure there will still be one, and I grieve for all of us who have lost a beloved friend.