Posted Sunday morning, June 24, 2018.
Koko the gorilla takes a selfie for the cover of National Geographic, October 1978. Courtesy of National Geographic via PBS via the Los Angeles Times.
I’m behind in my news reading, so I’m just catching up with this…
From the Department of That All Too Rare News That Somehow Feels Like Good News Because It Makes You Think Life Isn’t So Bad and It’s Good to Be Alive: Koko the Gorilla is gone.
"The Gorilla Foundation is sad to announce the passing of our beloved Koko," the research center says, informing the world about the death of a gorilla who fascinated and elated millions of people with her facility for language.
Koko, who was 46, died in her sleep Tuesday morning, the Gorilla Foundation said. At birth, she was named Hanabi-ko — Japanese for "fireworks child," because she was born at the San Francisco Zoo on the Fourth of July in 1971. She was a western lowland gorilla.
"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," the Gorilla Foundation said.
Lots of interesting, informative, and fun articles on her out there, and you’ve probably read a bunch. Most of them I’ve read touch on her love for her cat All Ball, her talent as an insult comic---”You nut” appears to have been her go-to insult, like Rickles’ hockey puck---and her friendships with celebrities like Betty White and Robin Williams. Koko and Williams were more than pals. They were mutual fans and Koko was reportedly heartsick when she was told Williams had died. Death, by the way, is a concept she appears to have understood in a far more sophisticated way than even dogs, elephants, and whales. Consciousness of one’s own mortality is---was---supposedly one of the things that separated humans from the rest of the animal kingdom
In 2001, Koko made a fast friend in comedian Robin Williams, trying on his glasses, showing him around and getting him to tickle her. Then they made faces at each other — and the gorilla seemed to recall seeing Williams in a movie. Years later, in 2014, Koko was one of many who mourned Williams' passing.
Leave it Slate, though, to bring the ants to the picnic. Via the Washington Post:
When Williams died in 2014, the Gorilla Foundation said Koko took it hard.
After Patterson told Koko that Williams had died, the foundation said, “Koko was quiet and looked very thoughtful.” Later, the organization said, “Koko became very somber, with her head bowed and her lip quivering.”
In its 2014 article on apes, Slate further questioned whether Koko really understood the tragedy, noting: “Was Koko really mourning Robin Williams? How much are we projecting ourselves onto her and what are we reading into her behaviors? Animals perceive the emotions of the humans around them, and the anecdotes in the release could easily be evidence that Koko was responding to the sadness she sensed in her human caregivers.”
Oh well. That’s Slate for you. Contrarianism is their bread and butter. Meanwhile, my favorite article about Koko is this one from the Los Angeles Times, What it's like to be interviewed for a job by Koko the gorilla: 'She had a lot to say'.
The job applicant was Mary Lee Jensvold, now a professor in the Primate Behavior and Ecology Program at Central Washington University who has worked with chimpanzees who communicate with sign language since 1986. But back in 1985 she was a new college grad looking for work and she applied for a job as Koko’s caregiver.
There aren’t many people who’ve had to impress a gorilla for a job interview, but Mary Lee Jensvold is one of them.
The interviewer in question was Koko, the western lowland gorilla who made a name for herself by learning American Sign Language and demonstrating for the world that animals have more intelligence and emotional depth than humans usually give them credit for. Jensvold was applying for a job as Koko’s caretaker.
“It was one of the most transformative experiences of my life,” Jensvold recalled this week after learning that Koko passed away in her sleep this week at the age of 46. “Before then, I had only ever talked to humans, and it was like, ‘Wow, we are really talking!’ It was really an amazing experience to meet another species and have a conversation with her.”
Jensvold didn’t get the job, though. Koko hired someone else. But, it being her field, after all, Jensvold offers some fascinating observations about human-ape communication but also offers some sobering insights to Times’ reporter Deborah Netburn:
Koko and the other signing apes…use language the same way people do. [Koko] was commenting on the world around her and signing about her activities, her day and her thoughts.
I liken it to talking to a child — not because she wasn’t mature, but because she was in a dependent relationship. The conversation you would have with her is like the conversation you would have with a child or an elderly person in your care.
When the Koko project started, that was sort of the heyday of the sign-language studies. So there was Koko, and the Gorilla Foundation had another male gorilla, Michael, who signed. And then the work was done with Washoe and four other chimps.
We learned so much from them about what they are thinking and feeling, and it gives us a window into their mind.
But we know keeping them in captivity is not a good situation for them. They end up being a displaced person, if you will. They have no home. Baby apes belong with their mothers.
We can give them lots of things, but we can never give them their freedom. So I feel strongly that the research should never be replicated, ever.
You should read the whole article, and this one by Sarah Larson at the New Yorker, Remembering Koko, a Gorilla We Loved. Slate’s editors may have been skeptical about the depth of Koko’s friendship with Robin Williams, but the documentary about Mr Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and maybe if they see it, they’ll change their minds:
Perhaps the most incredible scene in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the recent documentary about Mr. Rogers, features Mr. Rogers meeting Koko, the beloved western lowland gorilla. Koko, who died in her sleep this week, at forty-six, was known for her facility with American Sign Language, her emotional acuity, and her love of her pet kitten, All Ball. Koko was the world’s foremost celebrity gorilla. And she was, apparently, like so many sensitive souls of our generation, a Mr Rogers fan. In the scene, Rogers visits Koko, and she embraces him; as they sit on the floor, she cradles him in her massive arms. It’s an astounding moment of interspecies affection, and one that makes intuitive sense. Koko seems to be doing for Mr. Rogers what he did for us: providing boundless love and care that we hadn’t sought but deeply craved. It’s the one time in Morgan Neville’s film when Rogers seems to be the child, the grateful recipient of something like parental love. His expression is one we haven’t seen on him before—gratitude, joy, awe, possibly a hint of fear, like a novice surfer riding a wave. Koko unties Rogers’s shoelaces and takes his sneakers off, just as she’d seen him do on TV.