RIP Koko: The Gorilla Who Changed The World

Koko with Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson, who taught the gorilla sign language. Photograph: Ron Cohn/BBC/Ron Cohn

(WILDLIFE) Koko, the famed gorilla who learned signed language and touched the lives of millions with her incredible sense of empathy, has passed away at age 46. The western lowland gorilla died peacefully in her sleep at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in California’s Santa Cruz mountains.

Originally named Hanabi-ko–Japanese for “fireworks child”–after being born at San Francisco Zoo in 1971, Koko spent her entire life in captivity, but she lived an incredibly full life.

She was believed to have an IQ between 75 and 95 (the average human IQ is around 90 to 110), and could sign around 2,000 words. Unsurprisingly, she also understood spoken English.

Her remarkable ability to sign landed her on the cover of National Geographic twice, and made her the subject of numerous documentaries. She also formed several celebrity friendships with individuals like Robin Williams, Leonardo DiCaprio, Betty White, and Flea, the bassist in the Red Hot Chill Peppers.

Koko has had a profound impact teaching us about the emotional and intellectual capacity of great apes that will continue to shape the world. She will be greatly missed.

Read on to learn more about her meaningful life, and share your condolences by emailing [email protected]. — Global Animal

Koko with Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson, who taught the gorilla sign language. Photograph: Ron Cohn/BBC/Ron Cohn

CNN, Elizabeth Elkin and Saeed Ahmed

Koko, the gorilla who mastered sign language and showed the world what great apes can do, has died.

She died Tuesday in her sleep at age 46, The Gorilla Foundation said in a statement.

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the release said. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

She learned to communicate at a young age

The western lowland gorilla was born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971 and began to learn sign language early in life.

Francine “Penny” Patterson (left), using American Sign Language, asks the gorilla Koko if she is hungry on May 21, 1976. Koko is responding that she is. Photo credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Researchers moved her to Stanford in 1974 and established The Gorilla Foundation, a non-profit organization that works to preserve and protect gorillas.

Koko and The Gorilla Foundation later moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

She liked to read and be read to, a blog post by The Gorilla Foundation said. She purred at parts of books she particularly enjoyed.

She was very maternal toward kittens, and has had several throughout her lifetime. Her “tenderness” showed people how loving a gorilla can be, the foundation said.

Koko made famous friends like Fred Rogers, who appeared on TV as Mr. Rogers, and Robin Williams. She used her sign language skills to communicate with them.

She was said to have understood some 2,000 words of spoken English, and could usually keep up with conversations.

She taught the world about gorillas

The foundation says she has taught the world a profound amount about the emotional capacity and cognitive abilities of gorillas.

Koko appeared in several documentaries and twice on the cover of National Geographic. The first cover featured a photo she’d taken of herself in a mirror, the foundation said.

She was widely promoted through appearances and the release of a picture book about her and a kitten that lived with her.

She has also been exhibited as a painter.

The foundation will continue its work on conservation and preservation of gorillas with continued projects, including a sign language application featuring Koko.

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