Koko, the Loving Gorilla Who Knew ASL, Has Died at 46

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The purest thing on the planet may very well be an animal who can express love. Just sincere love, with no cynicism mixed in. A dog, or a cat, or a gorilla. Koko the Gorilla was an animal who was filled with absolute affection and could communicate with its human handlers. She could express her affection, as she famously did with her kitten All Ball, a kitten who she mourned following All Ball’s death. Her relationship with All Ball was documented in a 1978 issue of National Geographic, bringing Koko to fame.

Koko, born Hanabi-ko (Japanese for ‘fireworks child’ due to her birth on the fourth of July in 1971) was a western low land gorilla born at the San Fransisco Zoo. She was chosen for a language research project from birth by psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson, which tested gorillas’ cognitive abilities by teaching Koko ASL (American Sign Language).

The ASL was impressive, but even more impressive was Koko’s deep well of empathy. Koko expressed love, Koko expressed affection; an affection that was most beautifully shown for her love of cats, including All Ball, Lipstick, Ms. Gray, and Smoky.

Koko also received her share of Internet fame when meeting with both Robin Williams and Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers) in clips which would become famous for the gorilla. Mr. Rogers would later say that the presence of Koko around him helped him realize he had a legacy.


Koko, who died earlier this week at 46, is being mourned on the Gorilla Foundation page, and the Foundation has plans to honor her legacy. Plans including developing wildlife conservations in Africa, building a great ape sanctuary in Maui, Hawaii, and working on a sign language app.

Today, America mourns one of its more inspiration figures, in the world of both human and animal.

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