Koko the gorilla passed away last week at the age of 46. For those of you who for some reason don’t read the primate obituaries every day, Koko was a gorilla who used sign language to communicate with people. Apparently she was quite the conversationalist, too, because people loved her.

She even made an impression on Betty White, and that lady has seen some sh*t

Koko was born in the San Francisco Zoo in 1971. Within a year, Dr. Francine (Penny) Patterson, an animal psychologist, started teaching Koko a version of sign language that she called “Gorilla Sign Language” (GSL), because Dr. Patterson is better at teaching primates sign language than coming up with cool names for gorilla languages. It remains unclear how an animal psychologist does their job for animals that do not know sign language.

“I can tell by your silence that you have unresolved issues with your mother”

Dr. Patterson started The Gorilla Foundation in Woodside California, where she raised Koko like a child.  Koko was a fast learner and learned signs for up to 1000 words, and could understand as many as 2000 words spoken in English. She is said to have had an IQ of between 75 and 95 (the average human score is 100).

Koko brought up the average IQ in California

It should be noted that Koko didn’t master American Sign Language (ASL), as some sources have reported, as ASL is a very complex, multidimensional language that goes well beyond what Koko knew. Some researchers are also skeptical of the extent to which Koko could sign, arguing that some of what Koko “communicated” came from human interpretations of her hand signals, rather than Koko signing meaningful things. Still, there is no question about the fact that Koko used Gorilla Sign Language to communicate with humans, and that’s pretty astonishing.

I can barely communicate with humans, and I can talk out loud

Perhaps more important than Koko’s ability to sign, however, was the awareness she brought to animal consciousness. At a time when people questioned the sentience and emotional range of animals, Koko taught the world that non-human animals think and feel in ways similar to humans. Here’s a video you should really watch of Koko showing off complex “human” traits like humour and guilt.

And insults

Koko also showed us that gorillas are capable of emotions that are a whole lot like love. One of Koko’s favourite books (oh yeah, she could understand children’s books) was about a kitten, and one day she asked for a kitten of her own. Amazingly, Dr. Patterson gave her one, and instead of the expected thing, which would be the 300 lbs. gorilla throwing the kitten through a concrete wall, Koko loved that kitten.  She even gave the kitten a name, “All Ball”, because she thought the kitten looked like a little ball.

Koko and All Ball won National Geographic’s coveted “Most Adorable Cover Shot” Award in 1985

Sadly, like many pet cats, All Ball ended up getting run down on a highway. Upon learning of her death, Koko showed unmistakable grief, signing “Bad, sad, bad; frown, cry-frown, sad”. And then actually cried. The gorilla. Over the death of her pet cat. This video shows the whole thing, and while it’s one of the saddest things you will ever see, it undoubtedly shows the depth of emotion gorillas are capable of.

Then immediately watch this video of Koko getting new pet kitties to make yourself stop crying

It should be this level of cognition and emotion that Koko is most remembered for (and maybe this video of her having a tickle fight with Robin Williams). She demonstrated that non-human animals have “human” feelings like love, happiness, and grief, and we would all do well to remember that.

We would also do well to remember that Koko beat Kim Kardashian to the selfie by 30 years

When asked where gorillas go when they die, Koko responded “A comfortable hole. Goodbye”. So goodbye, Koko. You may have learned 1000 signs and 2000 words, but you taught us much more than that.

Dan tried to communicate with the apes at his local zoo, but they just flung poop at him. Email him or post on our Facebook / Twitter to see your topic covered here.

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Dan Re