Koko was renowned as one of the most intellectual apes in history, beloved by millions of people around the world. Psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson worked with and cared for Koko since the primate was a year old. Under Patterson’s tutelage, she learned more than 1,000 words in sign language and came to understand over 2,000 words spoken to her in English.
Born at the San Francisco Zoo, Koko was loaned to Patterson at the age of 1 for a research project at Stanford University on interspecies communications. When the zoo wanted Koko back for breeding, Patterson raised more than $12,000 to officially adopt the super-simian.
Her ᴅᴇᴀᴛʜ in June, 2018 saddened fans across the globe. One of the strongest messages that Koko delivered in recent years was one for the leaders of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Released by conservationist group Noé, the video racked up nearly two million views and featured Koko pleading with humans to help the planet before it was too late: “Fix Earth!”
So how exactly did Koko deliver this message?
Koko was taught over 1,100 ASL signs by Francine Patterson. She also understood more than 2,000 words in the English language and would regularly convey her thoughts and emotions into sign language. Her message from the video reads: “I am gorilla… I am flowers, animals. I am nature. Man Koko love. Earth Koko love. But man stupid… Stupid! Koko sorry. Koko cry. Time hurry! Fix Earth! Help Earth! Hurry! Protect Earth… Nature see you. Thank you.”
It’s important to note that at the time of the PSA’s release, a press release from The Gorilla Foundation made note that Koko was briefed on several environmental issues concerning the planet and her video message was put together in numerous takes. While the video has an incredibly high approval rating — it’s hard to hate on such an intelligent being — the message wasn’t without its critics. Snopes cited numerous problems with the PSA, calling it a “just a staged commercial” because of the lack of transparency regarding any direction Koko may have been receiving off camera. NPR also contacted a biological anthropologist who expressed doubts, saying that even the most linguistically inclined apes would not be able to comprehend the relationship between humans and nature regarding climate change. The message rings true.
Okay, so what?
None of that means that Koko’s ability to learn sign language wasn’t beyond amazing and had a radical effect on how humans view great apes and their relation to us. Perhaps even more importantly, it doesn’t take away from the importance of Koko’s message, regardless of how edited it may have been. Whether or not Koko’s command of language was truly advanced enough for her to make such complex statements doesn’t make them any less true. It’s common human nature to want to complicate things, yet sometimes even the most poignant messages are incredibly simple when you boil them down. “Help Earth. Hurry!” It’s as simple as that. Whether coming from the hands of a lovable gorilla who used to hang out with Robin Williams, or from a study regarding greenhouse gases. We need to start taking better care of our Earth if humans — and gorillas — want to be around to enjoy it.
Koko was ʙᴜʀɪᴇᴅ at a grave site on the Gorilla Foundation’s seven-acre preserve in Woodside, California, alongside Michael, a western lowland gorilla who was rescued from ᴘᴏᴀᴄʜᴇʀs in Cameroon and came to live with Koko at the sanctuary. He was originally Koko’s intended mate, but the pair developed a close friendship instead, according to Patterson.
Michael ᴅɪᴇᴅ in 2000 from ᴄᴀʀᴅɪᴏᴍʏᴏᴘᴀᴛʜʏ, a ᴅɪsᴇᴀsᴇ that causes the heart to become enlarged.
“They were great playmates and companions. They were good together, and she loved him so much,” Patterson said. “It just feels right to have them close.”
Patterson said Koko looked “peaceful” after she ᴅɪᴇᴅ, when Patterson arrived to be by her side.
“We’re still trying to understand what the cause was,” Patterson told ABC News. “Many gorillas have a ʜᴇᴀʀᴛ ᴄᴏɴᴅɪᴛɪᴏɴ, ᴄᴀʀᴅɪᴏᴍʏᴏᴘᴀᴛʜʏ, and she had it, but it was apparently a mild case and was being treated for that. That’s one possibility.”
Patterson recalled one of the last conversations she had with Koko in sign language.
“She was looking a little sad and worried, and she looked straight at me and held two signs,” she said. “One was ‘patient’ and the second one was ‘old.’ So she was trying to explain, ‘Hey, I’m getting on.'”