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The World Mourns Koko, The Groundbreaking Gorilla Who Spoke To Humans.

koko gorilla passes

Koko the lowland gorilla passed away peacefully in her sleep on June 21, 2018.

At 46, Koko had lived a long life for her species, who normally don’t live past 50. During her lifetime, Koko changed the world’s perception of what animals are capable of understanding, giving us a better sense of how primates think, feel, and love. She was an incredibly smart and sensitive animal, and she will be sorely missed by the scientists who raised her since she was just a baby.


In 1978, psychologist Dr. Penny Patterson brought Koko to the San Francisco Zoo as part of her doctoral thesis. Dr. Patterson taught Koko American Sign Language when she was an infant, and by the time the gorilla was seven years old she was able to easily understand human language and communicate via ASL.

Dr. Patterson’s project is the longest running ape language study in history.


By adulthood, Koko had an ASL vocabulary of over 1,000 signs, using 600 regularly in her daily life. She communicated with her caregivers at the Gorilla Foundation and even held meaningful conversations with celebrity visitors like Robin Williams, Betty White, and Fred Rogers.


Koko’s meeting with Robin Williams was a truly special moment. Not only did she have the actor/comedian in stitches as she clowned around with him, but their interaction showed the world that Koko could differentiate between human faces in a very powerful way.

koko and robin williams

After their meeting, Koko was able to recognize and point to Robin’s face from the cover of one of his film’s VHS tapes. Over a decade later, when Koko was told of Robin’s death, she mourned his loss along with the rest of the world. She had not forgotten her friend from all those years ago!

Koko became a household name in America during the 1980s, gracing the cover of National Geographic magazine twice.

Koko adored picture books like “Three Little Kittens”and “Puss in Boots,” which gave her the idea to get her own kitten. When caregivers offered her a stuffed cat, she told them she hated it in no uncertain terms – she signed the word “sad” and ignored the toy!

In 1983, Koko asked for a kitten so often that her caregivers finally relented. The way she cuddled and doted on her kitten made national headlines, once again, and proved to the world that animals are capable of actual love and affection for other creatures. Once researchers discovered how tender and loving Koko could be, she had a feline companion by her side from then on.


When she learned how to play the recorder in 2012, researchers were shocked to discover that gorillas could control their breathing in that manner.

Koko was continually learning about humans, and humans were always learning something new about gorillas and their capacities from her.


Koko died just two weeks short of celebrating her 47th birthday. She was born on the 4th of July in 1971, where she was originally called Hanabiko, a Japanese word that means “fireworks child.”

koko gorilla passed away

Her passing was announced on the Gorilla Foundation’s website, which also noted, “Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world.”

Thank you, Koko, for showing us that gorillas are capable of so much more than we ever could have imagined! The insights gained from studying this incredible primate have done more for animal research than you will never know.

Please share this story to honor this incredibly intelligent and social member of our global society. Rest in peace, Koko.

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