The untold truth of Koko

Debra Kelly in Grunge:

Not many animals are lucky enough to attain celebrity status outside their own homes, but Koko the western lowland gorilla absolutely did. Everyone knew her name (although it’s formally Hanabiko, from the Japanese for “fireworks child”), and everyone knew her as the gorilla that learned to communicate with humans through sign language. That’s an impressive skill for anyone to learn, and it was even more impressive considering she not only broke through the interspecies communication barrier, but let those who knew her best get a peek into her innermost thoughts and feelings. Because gorillas — and all animals — do think and feel, and Koko proved as much. When she passed away in June 2018 at age 46, the world didn’t just lose a gorilla, it lost an ambassador for an entire species. Koko was at the heart of The Gorilla Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded to research interspecies communication in hopes of fostering a worldwide attitude of conservation. Koko learned a lot in 46 years, and she taught the world a lot, too. What don’t you know about her? A lot.

The pictures of Koko with her kittens are among the most famous photos of her, but there’s more to the story than just a few adorably candid shots. She seriously loved cats, an obsession that went back to some of her favorite picture books: Puss ‘n’ Boots and The Three Little Kittens. In 1984, Koko asked researchers if she could have a kitten for Christmas. They gave her a realistic-looking stuffed cat, and she was not impressed. She refused it, signing repeatedly that she was sad — a completely legitimate reaction to getting a stuffed kitten in lieu of a real one. When her birthday came around in July, she was presented with a litter of kittens and told to pick one. She did, and she named the little orphan kitten All Ball. Tragically, All Ball wandered off the grounds after only a few months, and was hit by a car and killed. Koko’s mourning and tearful hooting made the LA Times, and researchers said she later signed, “Sleep. Cat.”

More here.