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Koko, Gorilla Who Learned Sign Language, Dies

Woodside, California —(Map)

Koko, a gorilla who learned to speak with signs and made the world look at animals in a different way, has died. The gorilla was 46 years old when she died in her sleep.

Koko became very famous for the things she could do.
She took this picture of herself for the cover of National Geographic in 1978.

Koko’s full name was “Hanabi-ko”, which means “fireworks child” in Japanese. She was given that name because she was born on the 4th of July. But for most of her life, she was simply called Koko.

Koko was just a baby when she met Francine Patterson and began working with her. Ms. Patterson was a young psychologist (a scientist who studies the mind), and was interested in working with animals. After Koko became sick, Ms. Patterson began taking care of her.

This gorilla is a western lowlands gorilla like Koko.
This gorilla is a western lowlands gorilla like Koko.
(Source: Jiel, from Wikimedia Commons.)

When Koko was 1, Ms. Patterson began teaching her. She spoke to her out loud in English, but also began teaching her to “speak” using a special kind of sign language. Sign language allows people to share their ideas by moving their hands, and is often used by deaf people.

By the time she was 4, Koko had learned about 170 words in sign language. She did not use words in the same way that humans use them, but Ms. Patterson and many people at the time believed that Koko was able to share her ideas by putting the words together in ways that seemed to have meaning. Over time, Koko learned about 1,000 different signs.

A boy shows how to say, "What's up?" in sign language.
A boy shows how to say, “What’s up?” in sign language.
Koko understood about 1,000 signs.
(Source: Positivesigner, from Wikimedia Commons.)

If she didn’t have a sign for a word, Koko seemed to be able to make up new signs or put other words together in new ways. For example, she didn’t know the word “ring”, and so she called it a “finger bracelet”.

Koko liked cats. In 1984, when she was 13 years old, Koko was allowed to have a cat as a pet. She took care of the cat, which she called “All Ball”. Later, All Ball escaped and was hit by a car. There is a film of Ms. Patterson talking with Koko about what happened to All Ball. “Cat, cry, have-sorry, Koko-love,” Koko signed. The idea that animals had feelings and could share them was a new and surprising one.

Koko loved cats. She named her kitten All Ball.

Besides sign language, Koko also understood about 2,000 words of English. In 2012 Koko learned to play a musical instrument called a recorder, which surprised many people. Scientists say that Koko was about as smart as a young child.

Koko was very playful, and enjoyed spending time with people. She became very famous for the things she could do and was visited by many famous people. Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams both visited her.

Koko met with many famous people, such as Robin Williams.
Koko met with many famous people, such as Robin Williams.
(Source: via Wikimedia Commons.)

Scientists are still studying ways that gorillas and other apes can be taught to use language. People disagree about whether apes really understand what they are saying when they are using language.

But Koko made humans think about animals in a different way than we had before. In a way, Koko taught us as much about humans as she did about animals.


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