An Audience With Koko The ‘Talking’ Gorilla
AN AUDIENCE WITH KOKO THE ‘TALKING’ GORILLA
An Audience With Koko The ‘Talking’ GorillaSep 30
AN AUDIENCE WITH KOKO THE ‘TALKING’ GORILLA
By Alex Hannaford
September 17, 2011
She knows more than 2,000 words, has friends in high places and loves cats and old films. But in her 40th year, Koko the ‘talking’ gorilla seeks a new challenge — a baby.
My location is a closely guarded secret: a ranch somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains, several miles outside the small California town of Woodside. And for good reason, for its resident is something of a celebrity. She lives here with a male friend and both value their privacy, so much so that I’m asked to keep absolutely silent as I walk the single-track dirt path that winds through a grove of towering redwoods up to a little Portakabin.
Inside, I’m asked to put on a thin medical mask to cover my nose and mouth and a pair of latex gloves. Then my guide, Lorraine, tells me to follow another dirt trail to a different outbuilding. This one has a small wooden porch attached and it’s here that I sit on a plastic chair and look up at an open door, separated from the outside world by a wire fence that stretches the length and width of the frame. And there she is: Koko. A 300lb lowland gorilla, sitting staring back at me and pointing to an impressive set of teeth.
I’d been told beforehand not to make eye contact initially as it can be perceived as threatening, and so I glare at the ground. But I can’t help stealing brief glances at this beautiful creature.
Koko, if you’re not familiar, was taught American sign language when she was about a year old. Now 40, she apparently has a working vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and understands around 2,000 words of spoken English. Forty years on, the Gorilla Foundation’s Koko project has become the longest continuous inter-species communications programme of its kind anywhere in the world.
I sign “hello”, which looks like a sailor’s salute, and she emits a long, throaty growl. “Don’t worry, that means she likes you,” comes the disembodied voice of Dr Penny Patterson, the foundation’s president and scientific director, from somewhere inside the enclosure. “It’s the gorilla equivalent of a purr.” Koko grins at me, then turns and signs to Dr Patterson. “She wants to see your mouth… wait, she particularly wants to see your tongue,” Dr Patterson says, and I happily oblige, pulling my mask down, poking my tongue out and returning the grin.
Another soft, deep roar. Dr Patterson emerges from a side door, closing it behind her, and joins me on the porch. Koko makes a sign. Dr Patterson translates: “Visit. Do you.
“Oh, sweetheart,” she says to Koko, then turns to me: “She’d like you to go inside.” Over the years Koko has inadvertently become a poster child for the gorilla conservation movement. There are several subspecies of gorilla, and today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, all are either endangered or critically endangered. There are thought to be more than 700 mountain gorillas left in the wild; just under 17,000 eastern lowland gorillas, 10,000 western lowland gorillas, and only 200-or-so Cross River gorillas. All are in sub-Saharan Africa and are threatened by either the illegal trade in bushmeat, loss of habitat due to logging and agricultural expansion, or disease.
According to Drew McVey, the World Wildlife Fund’s species programme manager for Africa, while tourism may be helping mountain gorilla numbers, with other subspecies the news isn’t so good. “For a lot of people in the forest, there is simply no other source of protein,” he says. “But more disturbing is the increased novelty trade.”
Attempts to educate communities where poaching is rife about gorilla conservation has, evidently, largely failed; statistics about dwindling numbers of great apes just don’t resonate with people who can make good money from gorilla meat or body parts, or for those for whom the logging industry puts dinner on the table. But some conservationists believe stories like Koko’s — of how an “inculturated’ gorilla (the word researchers use for primates that have essentially had their own culture suppressed and adopted a more human-like culture) has actually communicated with us and demonstrated her intelligence – could be the answer. We should attempt, in other words, to win hearts, rather than minds.
At 40, Koko finds herself in a position where she could possibly be more relevant than ever. But she’s advanced in gorilla years and the Gorilla Foundation is determined to ensure her legacy. That means allowing her to pass on her knowledge of human sign language to her offspring, but despite repeated attempts to get her to successfully mate — first with the male silverback, Michael, and then, more recently, with another, Ndume, her current partner — Koko’s keepers’ efforts have been in vain.
It’s rare that anyone gets to meet Koko up close. I find out just how seldom at the Gorilla Foundation offices when I’m told most of the staff there have only ever been outside her enclosure. A handful of celebrities, Leonardo Di Caprio and Robin Williams included, plus a few business leaders have had the pleasure, but this was to raise her profile or secure donations for the foundation. Few journalists have had the opportunity, and I’m told none has spent as long as I will — an hour-and-a-half – in her company.
Looming above is a huge three-storey enclosure that Koko can access via a hatch. Inside that is Ndume, the male silverback. We can’t see each other but I’m told he is well aware I’m here and I have to keep my voice down as he’s protective of Koko.
Inside the kitchen area, I’m still separated from Koko by bars. Watched by Koko’s official photographer, Gorilla Foundation co-founder Ron Cohn, I open up the carrier bag of goodies I’ve bought from Toys R Us and flick through a picture book on zoo animals, touching each page and holding it up to her eyes. She then points to the padlock on the door and signs for Dr Patterson to open it. I sit cross-legged and Koko shuffles her 300lb frame towards me.
Wearing a mask and gloves to protect her from human viruses, I’m sweating now and still trying desperately not to make eye contact. Suddenly, I feel her leathery hand softly touch mine. She pulls me gently towards her chest, wrapping her arms around me. I can smell her breath – sweet and warm, not unlike a horse’s. After she releases me from her embrace, she makes another sign — fists together. “She wants you to follow — to chase her,” Dr Patterson says.
Koko lightly takes my hand and places it in the bend in her arm before leading me around the small room, cluttered with soft toys and clothes designed to stimulate her imagination. I shuffle along the floor so as not to seem threatening, but it’s amazing how gentle she is.
My wife and I had a baby daughter just three weeks before my visit and I pull a photo out of my pocket to show her. I’ve learnt the sign — pointing to myself and then making a rocking motion with my arms — to indicate “my baby”. Incredibly, Koko takes the photo, looks at it, and kisses it. She then turns, picks up a doll from the mound of toys beside her and holds it up to me.
At one point she tugs lightly on my arm to indicate I’m to lie down beside her. Dr Patterson, who has been taking extensive notes of my interaction with Koko, says she can sense I’m nervous and does this to make people feel at ease. Another time she turns her back to me and indicates I’m to scratch it for her.
She swings herself up onto a large plastic chair and Dr Patterson turns on a video for her. It’s Mary Poppins, and Koko signals that I’m to sit next to her. If my day wasn’t surreal enough, it suddenly dawns on me that I’m watching Dick van Dyke while sitting next to a gorilla — an arrangement that Koko seems perfectly content with.
After two more hugs, Koko is coaxed away by Dr Patterson wielding a nut. And it’s over. I stand outside on the porch again and wave goodbye and she blows me a kiss, then puts her head up to the cage and puckers her lips.
I reach out and touch them and then disappear back up the path.
The Gorilla Foundation was born in the late Seventies when Dr Patterson was studying for a PhD in developmental psychology at Stanford university.
After discovering a small, undernourished baby gorilla named Hanabi-Ko (nicknamed Koko) at San Francisco Zoo, Dr Patterson persuaded the institution to loan the animal and started her dissertation on the linguistic capabilities of a lowland gorilla. Two weeks into her studies, Dr Patterson noted that Koko was able to make the correct signs to indicate food and drink. Project Koko was born.
Dr Patterson has devoted her entire life to this. We meet back in Woodside-proper at the foundation’s office in a nondescript block near the centre of town. The artwork on the walls around the small conference table — bright splashes of paint, bold colours and lines — were painted by Koko and her former mate, Michael.
Fitting for someone who communicates with her charge through sign language, Dr Patterson uses her hands a lot throughout our interview. From the outset she makes it clear how she feels about gorillas in captivity — 40 per cent of males die of heart problems before the age of 30, she tells me; something that doesn’t happen in the wild — but although it was never her decision for Koko to be born in a zoo, she says, the gorilla’s contribution to our understanding of her species has been immeasurable.
“I also think she feels some pride there,” Dr Patterson says. “Koko is now a self-described ‘fine person gorilla’.” Dr Patterson says Koko is extremely sophisticated in her thought processes, using not just sign language but communication cards, books and multimedia to express herself. She also says we’ve learnt that great apes, like humans, have the capacity for empathy. “Their politics work like our politics,” Dr Patterson says. “If you’re not nice, you’re out of the group or you’re not given things the others are given.
Some sceptical researchers have argued that Koko does not understand the meaning behind what she is doing and simply learns to sign because she’ll be rewarded — known as operant conditioning. In the 1999 PBS Nature documentary, A Conversation With Koko, Dr Patterson admits that in the beginning she, too, thought Koko was simply doing it to “get stuff”, but the gorilla began stringing words together to describe objects she didn’t know the signs for. A hair brush, for example, became “scratch comb”; a mask was an “eye hat” and a ring was a “finger bracelet”.
“Koko learns more and creates more all the time, and the challenge for us sometimes is finding out what she’s trying to tell us,” she tells me. “It’s the same with humans, though: if something’s important, you have to communicate it. When you need a new sign, you invent one.” From my limited time with Koko, I could see reward wasn’t her motivation. Yes, she signed to achieve goals, but these goals weren’t treats: they were to get me to follow her around the room, to get me to lie down, to get me to play with her — to interact.
Koko wasn’t the first, and isn’t the only primate to have learnt to communicate with humans. Five years before Dr Patterson began her work, comparative psychologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner became the first people to teach language to a great ape — Washoe, a chimpanzee, who learnt 350 signs.
Then, in 1998, Oxford University Press published Apes, Language and the Human Mind, an account of the work of psychologist and biologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh with the bonobo ape Kanzi. Kanzi was apparently capable of comprehending spoken English of a “grammatical and semantic complexity” equal to that mastered by a normal two-and-a-half-year-old human child.
Savage-Rumbaugh claimed her research presented a serious and effective challenge to scientific thinking about the cognitive and communicative capabilities of non-human primates.
Dieter Steklis, a professor of psychology, and his wife Netzin, an evolutionary psychologist and research specialist in human development, both at the University of Arizona, need no further convincing. Though there are naysayers out there, the Steklises maintain these people are in the minority and that controlled language experiments involving great apes have appeared in scientifically respectable journals. “And once you accept that, it opens up other questions,” Dieter says. “What else can we learn from this creature that has this remarkable capacity to tell us something? Even if the channel for communications is limited, we can get in there and see what’s on their mind, so to speak.”
Dieter says while a lot of language research involving apes has focused on whether they think like we do, a different question would be to find out what they think about each other and the problems they face — something, he says, which has been much less explored by ape-language researchers. “Does an ape, even without language training, imagine a future for itself?” he asks. “Does it have quasi-aspirations?”
The idea, then, that Koko could potentially teach sign language to her offspring in future excites the Steklises as well. “Many primatologists don’t think that kind of teaching is possible,” Dieter says. But in order to do it, Netzin says it would have to be a long-lived animal that has strong social bonds, trained by someone who has invested a huge amount of time and effort in it. “And that’s exactly what Penny has provided. It’s a great achievement.”
Dr Patterson says Koko’s desire for a baby has evolved over the years. From the age of about six she was caring for dolls, and her maternal instincts progressed from dolls to living things: a rabbit “wandering around Stanford — obviously a lab escapee”; and then, most famously, Koko’s kitten, which she named All Ball, eventually the subject of a children’s book by Dr Patterson and a documentary.
“She was very gentle and careful with All Ball. She wanted to nurture it,” she says. But a few months after All Ball came into Koko’s life, it escaped from her enclosure and was run over by a car. Dr Patterson says that when Koko found out, she signed “bad, sad, bad” and “frown, cry, frown”.
Recently, Dr Patterson says, Koko has shown no interest in visiting kittens — an indication, she believes, that she is now after the real thing. Through pictures and signs, Koko has told researchers at the Gorilla Foundation that she’d like to raise a child in a group situation. “A mother gorilla and baby in isolation aren’t healthy. Zoos have discovered this,” Dr Patterson says.
“It takes a village to raise a baby gorilla – just like humans.” The ideal scenario is that a zoo or wildlife park (preferably outside of the United States due to legal red tape) loans the Gorilla Foundation a couple of females.
Ndume would then impregnate one of them and the three mothers, Koko included, would raise the baby in a group. Adopting an infant gorilla for Koko is also an option, but not the most ideal.
The book Koko’s Kitten was first published 24 years ago, but the Gorilla Foundation still reprints it and now Dr Patterson aims to distribute it in areas in Africa where gorillas are threatened — to teach children there how a great ape can have the capacity to love and care for an animal of another species. There’s another book in the works, too. This one is darker, but Dr Patterson believes it could make a lasting impact.
Michael was the male silverback at the Gorilla Foundation until his death in 2000 aged 27, after which Ndume took his place. Researchers believe his parents were both killed by poachers in Cameroon, and that Michael was able to tell them this by signing: “Squash meat gorilla. Mouth tooth. Cry sharp-noise loud. Cut/neck.”
As for Koko, Dr Patterson insists she is only too aware of man’s occasionally horrific interactions with wild gorillas. “It happened by accident — someone sent a DVD about primates and I didn’t really look at it,” she says. “But it was playing and when I looked I saw Koko watching a graphic bushmeat scene. I hadn’t previewed it like I should have. The next day we were in with Koko and I was going through some mail. Koko picked up an insert from a newspaper and it was a supermarket ad. She held up a section full of pictures of meat and signed: “shame there”.