Image 3D Honors Koko the Gorilla

The gorilla named Hanabiko, more commonly known as Koko, recently passed away on June 19th at the age of 46. Koko was world famous for having an extensive vocabulary in sign language, and for being able to understand a large vocabulary of English spoken words.

Koko the gorilla was born in the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, and was cared for by Francine Patterson, an animal psychologist who taught Koko a modified gorilla sign language version of ASL (American Sign Language) starting when Koko was less than a year old. Patterson simultaneously exposed Koko to spoken English while she was teaching Koko, and throughout her life Koko was able to understand spoken English while responding in sign language.


Remarkable Communicative Ability

Koko the gorilla captured the attention of the world for her ability to communicate with human beings on a level unprecedented for non-human species. Koko broke a number of barriers in terms of communication and cognition. For example, Koko was able to pass a test using a mirror which involved recognizing herself, something that most gorillas are unable to do. According to Patterson, Koko was even able to synthesize new concepts from old concepts. Koko was never taught a sign for the word ‘ring’, but managed to refer to rings as a combination of the signs for ‘finger’ and ‘bracelet’.


Over the course of her life, Koko managed to accumulate a gorilla sign language vocabulary of over 1,000 words. In addition, she was able to understand more than 2,000 spoken English words. No non-human creature has managed to develop a vocabulary as extensive as Koko’s. She was able to interact with a number of tools and devices, such as the View-Master toy. Koko was able to select individual slides based on her preferences and manipulate the device to look at the pictures.


Mainstream Acclaim

Over the decades, Koko remained a source of fascination to the public. While she began her life and early years at the San Francisco Zoo, Koko was moved to a Gorilla Preserve in in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. There, she was the subject of a number of documentaries and public interest articles and television programs about what happened to Koko the gorilla. She also met a number of celebrities over the years, a diverse list including Betty White, Mr. Rogers, William Shatner, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Leonardo DiCaprio.

One feature of Koko’s life which drew much attention was her penchant for having pets. In 1983, Koko requested a pet cat. Initially, researchers gave her a stuffed animal cat, but Koko was not appeased, continuing to sign ‘sad’ to indicate her displeasure.

Finally, in 1984, she was given a kitten, which she proceeded to raise as though it were a baby gorilla and named ‘All Ball’. Tragically, her pet escaped its enclosure and was hit by a car, killing it. When told of All Ball’s death, Koko repeatedly made the signs for frown, sad, cry and bad. Her researchers even observed her making sounds reminiscent of crying.


Disputes and Controversy

While no one disputes that Koko had an extensive vocabulary, there is some dispute as to exactly how large it was and how much she understood. Some critics of Koko’s researchers argued that some of their methods in interacting with Koko allowed her to pick up on researcher cues and seem to be communicating more than she actually was.

Some suggest that Koko had the mental ability and communication level of a small child. However, other tests put Koko’s IQ at anywhere from 75 to 90 (100 is average adult intelligence level). Researchers who studied Koko have made the claim that Koko used language the same way that we do.


Death of Koko The Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died of natural causes at the age of 46. While this was older than most gorillas live in captivity, what happened to Koko the gorilla was unexpected. The world as a whole mourned the death and remembered the life of an amazing creature who did much to show us that we bear more similarities than we may have thought to non-human species.

Image3D is honored to continue the legacy of a product that has brought joy to the life of humans and non-humans alike.