Koko, the Gorilla Who Learned Sign Language, Is Dead at 46

June 22, 2018, 12:28 AM UTC

Koko, the western lowland gorilla that began to learn sign language in the San Francisco Zoo and eventually became a celebrity beloved by millions, passed away in her sleep Tuesday at the age of 46.

Instructor and trainer Dr. Penny Patterson began teaching Koko a modified version of human sign language at an early age. In time, Koko came to use more than 1,000 signs of what [hotlink ignore=true]Patterson called “gorilla sign language” and could understand about 2,000 words of spoken English.</p> <p>“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the Gorilla Foundation said in a <a href="http://www.koko.org/gorilla-foundation-sad-announce-passing-our-beloved-koko">statement</a>. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”</p> <div class="embed-twitter"> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-width="500" data-dnt="true"> <p lang="en" dir="ltr">Koko the gorilla has sadly died aged 46</p> <p>Here's the story of her life 🦍💚 <a href="https://t.co/GFzfSvydcp">pic.twitter.com/GFzfSvydcp</a></p> <p>— BBC Earth (@BBCEarth) <a href="https://twitter.com/BBCEarth/status/1009752386183757829?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">June 21, 2018</a></p></blockquote> <p><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script></div> <p>Through sign language, Koko was able to convey emotions such as empathy and grief. After reading picture books about kittens, Koko asked for a pet kitten of her own. When the kitten was later killed after being struck by a car, Koko “<a href="http://articles.latimes.com/1985-01-10/news/mn-9038_1_pet-kitten">discussed</a>” the death for several days afterward. She also learned to <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2012/02/02/146195395/a-famous-gorilla-plays-the-recorder-and-we-all-may-learn-something">play the recorder</a>, surprising scientists who thought the regulating breath was unique to humans.</p> <p>Koko was featured on the cover of <em>National Geographic</em> magazine twice and made memorable appearances with other celebrities such as Robin Williams, Betty White, and Fred Rogers.</p> <p><iframe loading="lazy" title="Koko's Tribute to Robin Williams" width="500" height="281" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I9I_QvEXDv0?feature=oembed" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe></p> <p>In a 1978 <em>National Geographic</em> article <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/1978/10/conversations-with-koko-the-gorilla/?cmpid=org=ngp::mc=social::src=twitter::cmp=editorial::add=twp20180621ngm-newkokorepublished::urid=&sf192297130=1">recounting</a> some of her conversations with Koko, [hotlink ignore=true] [hotlink]Patterson talked about the time a reporter asked Koko: “Are you an animal or a person?”

Koko, Patterson recalled, replied instantly: “Fine animal gorilla.”