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Koko (gorilla)

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Title: Koko (gorilla)  
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Subject: Great ape language, Panbanisha, Primate cognition, Animal language, List of cats
Collection: 1971 Animal Births, Apes from Language Studies, Individual Gorillas
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Koko (gorilla)

Born (1971-07-04) July 4, 1971 [1]
San Francisco Zoo, US
Years active 1972–present
Known for Use of sign language

Hanabiko "Koko" (born July 4, 1971) is a female western lowland gorilla who is known for having learned a large number of hand signs from a modified version of American Sign Language (ASL).

Her trainer, Francine "Penny" Patterson, reports that Koko is able to understand more than 1,000 signs of what Patterson calls "Gorilla Sign Language" (GSL).[2] In contrast to other experiments attempting to teach sign language to non-human primates, Patterson simultaneously exposed Koko to spoken English from an early age. Reports state that Koko understands approximately 2,000 words of spoken English, in addition to the signs.[3] Koko's life and learning process has been described by her trainer Patterson and some of her collaborators in a number of books, peer reviewed articles, and on a website.

As with other great ape language experiments, the extent to which Koko has mastered and demonstrates these signs is disputed.[4] But it is generally accepted that she does not use syntax or grammar, and that her use of language does not exceed that of a young human child.[5][6][7][8][9]

Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo and has lived most of her life in Woodside, California, although a move to a sanctuary on Maui, Hawaii, has been planned since the 1990s.[10] Koko is short for the name Hanabiko (花火子 literally "fireworks child") in Japanese, a reference to her date of birth, the fourth of July. Koko also gained publicity when she reportedly adopted a kitten.


  • Life 1
  • Use of language 2
  • Koko's pets 3
  • Media 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


Koko was originally loaned to Francine Patterson for her doctoral research, but has stayed with Patterson ever since, supported by The Gorilla Foundation. Koko's weight is much higher than would be normal for a gorilla in the wild, which may be due to her diet which includes human food products, including processed meat and sweets, as well as large amounts of homeopathic dietary supplements. For a while, Koko lived with another gorilla, Michael, who also learned sign language but died in 2000. She now lives with a male gorilla, Ndume. [11]

Use of language

Patterson claims that Koko's use of signs and her actions, which are consistent with her use of signs, indicate she has mastered the use of sign language.[2] Other researchers argue that she does not understand the meaning behind what she is doing and learns to complete the signs simply because the researchers reward her for doing so (indicating that her actions are the product of operant conditioning).[12][13] Another concern that has been raised about Koko's ability to express coherent thoughts through the use of signs is that interpretation of the gorilla's conversation is left to the handler, who may see improbable concatenations of signs as meaningful. Following Patterson's initial publications in 1978 a series of critical evaluations of her reports of signing behavior in great apes argued that video evidence suggested that Koko was simply being prompted by their trainers' unconscious cues to display specific signs, in what is commonly called the Clever Hans effect.[14][15][16][17][18][19] Such debate requires careful consideration of what it means to "learn" or "use" a language (see Animal language for further discussion).

Patterson has reported that Koko has made several complex uses of signs that suggest a more developed degree of cognition than is usually attributed to non-human primates and their use of communication. For example Koko has been reported to use displacement (the ability to communicate about objects not currently present), signing the sign for "baby" the day after her baby was removed from her.[20] At age 19, Koko was also able to pass the mirror test of self recognition, which most other gorillas fail.[21][22] She has also been reported to report personal memories.[23] Koko has also been reported to use meta-language, being able to use language reflexively to speak about language itself, signing "good sign" to another gorilla who successfully used signing.[24] Koko has also been reported to use language deceptively, and to use counterfactual statements for humorous effects, suggesting an underlying theory of other minds.[18]

Patterson also reports that she has documented Koko inventing new signs to communicate novel thoughts. For example, she says that nobody taught Koko the word for "ring", but to refer to it, Koko combined the words "finger" and "bracelet", hence "finger-bracelet".[25]

Criticism from some parts of the scientific community centers on the fact that while publications often appear in the popular press about Koko, scientific publications with substantial data are fewer in number.[26][27][28]

Koko's training began at the age of 1, and now, according to Patterson, she can use more than a thousand different signs.[29] A bonobo named Kanzi, who had learned to communicate using a keyboard with lexigrams, picked up some sign language from watching videos of Koko; Kanzi's researcher, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, did not realize he had done so until Kanzi began signing to anthropologist Dawn Prince-Hughes, who had previously worked closely with gorillas.[30]

Koko's pets

Koko is one of the few non-humans known to keep a

  • Official website

External links

  • Patterson, Dr. Francine (1987). Koko's Kitten. Scholastic, Inc. ISBN 0-590-44425-5
  • Patterson, Francine and Wendy Gordon (1993) "The case for the personhood of gorillas" In: P Cavalieri and P Singer (Eds) The great ape project: Equality beyond humanity, St. Martin's Press, pp. 58–77. ISBN 9780312118181.
  • Weiner, Jody (2005) "Hot Koko". California Lawyer. p.80.
  • Weiner, Jody. "Hot Koko & the Fetching Cat". Kinship with Animals. Updated Edition Ed. Kate Solisti and Michael Tobias. San Francisco/Tulsa: Council Oak, 2006. 182-88. ISBN 978-1571781895

Further reading

  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^
  4. ^ Ward, B. (1999). Koko: Fact or Fiction?. American Language Review, 3(3), 12-15.
  5. ^ Michael W. Eysenck, 2000, Psychology: A Student's Handbook Taylor & Francis, p. 247
  6. ^ Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, Nina Hyams. 2013. An Introduction to Language. Cengage Learning, pp. 20-21
  7. ^ William A. Haviland, Harald E. L. Prins, Dana Walrath, Bunny McBride. 2012. The Essence of Anthropology 3rd ed. Cengage Learning, p. 178
  8. ^ Gisela Håkansson, Jennie Westander. 2013. Communication in Humans and Other Animals. John Benjamins Publishing, p. 131
  9. ^ Joel Wallman.1992. Aping Language. Cambridge University Press, p. 20
  10. ^
  11. ^ Hillix, W. A. & Rumbaugh, D. M. (2004). Koko Fine Sign Gorilla. In, "Animal Bodies, Human Minds: Ape, Dolphin, and Parrot Language Skills" (pp. 99-111). Springer US. Koko had two pet kittens, All Ball, and once All Ball got sadly hit by a car, Lipstick. Koko named All Ball All Ball because he had no tail. Lipstick was called Lipstick by Koko because she was a tabby, which Koko thought looked like lipstick
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Petitto, L. A., & Seidenberg, M. S. (1979). On the evidence for linguistic abilities in signing apes. Brain and Language, 8(2), 162-183.
  15. ^ Miles, H. L. (1983). Apes and language: The search for communicative competence. In Language in primates (pp. 43-61). Springer New York.
  16. ^ Terrace, H. S. (1983). Apes who “talk”: language or projection of language by their teachers?. In Language in Primates (pp. 19-42). Springer New York.
  17. ^ Terrace, H. S., Petitto, L. A., Sanders, R. J., & Bever, T. G. (1979). Can an ape create a sentence?. Science, 206(4421), 891-902.
  18. ^ a b Miles, H. L. (1986). How can I tell a lie? Apes, language, and the problem of deception. Deception: Perspectives on human and nonhuman deceit, 245-266.
  19. ^ Sanders, R. J. (1985). Teaching apes to ape language: Explaining the imitative and nonimitative signing of a chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 99(2), 197.
  20. ^ Nick Lund. 2013. Animal Cognition. Routledge, p. 77-78
  21. ^ Shigeru Watanabe, Stan Kuczaj. 2012. Emotions of Animals and Humans: Comparative Perspectives. Springer Science & Business Media, p. 189
  22. ^ Tomasello, M., & Call, J. (1997). Primate cognition. Oxford University Press.
  23. ^ Anne E. Russon, Kim A. Bard, Sue Taylor Parker. 1998. Reaching Into Thought: The Minds of the Great Apes. Cambridge University Press, Nov 26, 1998 p. 330
  24. ^ Vyvyan Evans. 2014. The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct Cambridge University Press,p. 57
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ Hu, Jane C. (August 20, 2014). "What do talking apes really tell us?"
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ Hannaford, A. (October 7, 2011, October 7). "Talking to Koko the gorilla". The Week. Retrieved December 7, 2012.
  32. ^ a b McGraw, C. (1985, January 10). "Gorilla's Pets: Koko Mourns Kittens Death". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 12, 2012.
  33. ^


Koko and Dr. Patterson's work with her have been the subject of several books and documentaries.


More recently, to celebrate her birthday in October 2015, Koko was presented another litter of kittens. Picking two she named them Miss Black and Miss Grey.

In 1985, Koko was allowed to pick out two new kittens from a litter to be her companions. The animals she chose, she named "Lipstick" and "Smokey," were also Manxes.[33] Koko picked the name after seeing the tiny orange Manx for the first time. When her trainer asked the meaning of the name, Koko answered, Lips lipstick. Dr. Patterson was confused until she realized that Lips had a pink nose and mouth, unlike All Ball's gray markings. Koko picked Smoky's name because the kitten looks like a cat in one of the gorilla's books.

In December of that same year, All Ball escaped from Koko's cage and was hit and killed by a car. Later, Patterson said that when she signed to Koko that All Ball had been killed, Koko signed "Bad, sad, bad" and "Frown, cry, frown, sad". Patterson also reported later hearing Koko making a sound similar to human weeping.[32]


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