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June 21, 2018 4:59 AM   Subscribe

The Gorilla Foundation has announced the passing of Koko.

Born at the San Francisco Zoo in 1971, Hanabi-Ko ("Fireworks Child") was an undernourished baby when Dr. Penny Patterson, then a developmental psychology student at Stanford, asked to temporarily adopt her for a research project to discover the language abilities of great apes. After working with Koko for only two weeks, Patterson noticed that Koko was already correctly signing requests for "food" and "drink". Patterson decided to make the project permanent and has been working with Koko ever since.

Koko had a vocabulary of 1,000 signs and understood an additional 2,000 words of spoken English. Critics persistently questioned whether Koko really "understood" what she was signing, or was simply parroting gestures in search of rewards. Patterson has pointed out that Koko frequently will invent her own signs when she wants to communicate a new thought and doesn't already know the sign for it - signing "finger" and "bracelet," for example, when she wants to comment on a ring, or "eye" and "hat" when discussing a mask.

Koko was not alone; the Gorilla Foundation also adopted Michael, another lowland gorilla, who died in 2000; and Nbume, who survives Koko. Koko also enjoyed the company of pet cats; the first was a Manx kitten named "All Ball" by Koko herself; All Ball sadly escaped the compound and was hit by a car after only a few months. (The title of this post was reportedly Koko's signed response when she was given the news.) Koko later adopted "Lipstick" and "Smokey" in 1985, and then "Miss Black" and "Miss Grey" in 2015.

Two notable celebrity visits with Koko:

Fred Rogers
Robin Williams

Koko died peacefully in her sleep this morning.

Koko Previously, and previously.
posted by EmpressCallipygos (74 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by Chuffy at 5:05 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by Captain_Science at 5:08 AM on June 21, 2018


My mother loves Koko so much. I should give her a call later.

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posted by Strange Interlude at 5:18 AM on June 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


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posted by Gelatin at 5:19 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by rebeccabeagle at 5:23 AM on June 21, 2018


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We do not treat our fellow primates well, nor sufficiently acknowledge non-human intelligence.
posted by sotonohito at 5:23 AM on June 21, 2018 [27 favorites]


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posted by XMLicious at 5:24 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by mikelieman at 5:24 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by zakur at 5:25 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by Joe in Australia at 5:25 AM on June 21, 2018


In other Great Ape news, my spirit guide, Kanzi the Bonobo appears to be well.

http://photos1.blogger.com/blogger/1090/2181/1600/kanziheadphones.jpg ( AKG FTW! )
posted by mikelieman at 5:27 AM on June 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


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posted by middleclasstool at 5:27 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by notsnot at 5:31 AM on June 21, 2018


Critics persistently questioned whether Koko really "understood" what she was signing, or was simply parroting gestures in search of rewards.

Of course, the same questions apply to humans.

Farewell, Koko! My children and I have loved you for decades. Maybe you'll be reunited with All Ball, ah, see, you've brought out the animist in me...
posted by homerica at 5:31 AM on June 21, 2018 [25 favorites]


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Regarding the controversy about whether, as Patterson wrote, Koko's use of signs shows that "Language is no longer the exclusive domain of man," I think this chat transcript is very revealing. Of all the examples of animals who were taught human language, Koko was one of the least convincing. In the papers no quantitative data is provided, only a small handful of striking examples that could easily have been cherry-picked (like "eye hat"). Raw datasets have never been provided to other researchers, and in general it's very difficult to find out any concrete information about how Koko was trained and the contexts in which signs were produced. Videos of Koko tend to consist of isolated signs that have very obviously been spliced together to form "sentences" that are clearly inventions.

Overall, I'm not convinced that any useful science came out of these experiments on Koko, and certainly I would argue that any limited insight which resulted needs to be balanced against the cost of dragging her out in front of cameras for decades and keeping her in an environment to which she was not suited. There are good arguments for gorillas being kept in zoos, but it is much harder to argue that gorillas should be kept in trailers.

We should appreciate animals for what they are rather than dressing them up as people, and our willingness to treat other creatures well should not be predicated on whether we can convince ourselves that they are more humanlike than other creatures. Animal intelligence is no less worthwhile than human intelligence, it is simply different, and we do not do animals any favors by ignoring these differences.
posted by IjonTichy at 5:33 AM on June 21, 2018 [36 favorites]


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posted by ZeusHumms at 5:39 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by allandsome at 5:42 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by DigDoug at 5:43 AM on June 21, 2018


🦍🐈
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:43 AM on June 21, 2018 [14 favorites]


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posted by Foosnark at 5:45 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by droplet at 5:49 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by Kitteh at 5:50 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by tommasz at 5:51 AM on June 21, 2018


All the apes involved in the language experiments of the 70s and 80s are aging and dying. Lucy died in 1987, Nim Chimsky died in 2000, Michael died in 2000, Moja died in 2002, Washoe died in 2007, Kanzi is nearly 40, Loulis is 40, Dar is 42, Tatu is 43. I only have direct experience with Washoe, Loulis, Dar, and Tatu, and my general impression was that they were much loved and well cared for, but the fact is that ape language experiments were something the apes had no choice but to participate in and they are of ... limited ... usefulness when it comes to inferring things about human and non-human intelligence. On the other hand, I think ape language experiments led to much better work on communication and cognition in non-human primates - stuff like Cheney and Seyfarth's work on vervet monkey vocalizations, work being done in the forest in Cote d'Ivoire where I work on syntax and referential calls in monkey vocalizations, and the really cool great ape gesture dictionary! So, I think that the legacy that these primates leave to science is a meaningful and important one, and I am grateful for all the things we learned.

Arguably, they had better lives in these cross-fostering and personal environments than they would have as chimpanzees used for the space program (Washoe was one of the many baby chimpanzees the US bought for the space program that resulted in Ham the Astrochimp before any American human astronaut ended up in space) or as biomedical research subjects or in zoos in the late 70s and early 80s, where many of them would have (and, sometimes, did, end up). However, mishandling and misconduct dog a lot of these projects, most notably Koko's project and Kanzi's project, and so on balance, who's to say? Certainly, any of these animals would have been better off growing in the forests of Cameroon and Gabon and Congo like they were supposed to. I'm very sad that Koko has died, and I'm going to have to go home and find my copy of Koko's Kitten to read.

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posted by ChuraChura at 5:59 AM on June 21, 2018 [75 favorites]


Seems like I've been following her all my life. Goodnight, good girl.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:14 AM on June 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


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posted by filtergik at 6:15 AM on June 21, 2018


Heartbroken.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:27 AM on June 21, 2018


What it must be like to have a gorilla look you in the eye and say "chase me, tickle me, play with me". I'd have been in tears.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:48 AM on June 21, 2018 [4 favorites]


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posted by dlugoczaj at 6:52 AM on June 21, 2018


Oh no!

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posted by littlesq at 6:57 AM on June 21, 2018



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posted by Beardman at 7:13 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by ikahime at 7:27 AM on June 21, 2018


Are any more gorillas learning sign these days?

*sigh* As if this week wasn't hard enough, right?
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:29 AM on June 21, 2018


There are very few projects still active. The ethics around ape language projects have really shifted, and the limited results have made it very hard to justify taking babies away from their mothers to raise in a language-rich environment. Kanzi at the Great Ape Trust is the only project I know of; the chimpanzees associated with Washoe who are still alive have all been retired to chimpanzee sanctuaries, and even biomedical researchers have retired nearly all their lab chimps to sanctuaries and committed not to take further chimpanzees from wild populations and, I believe, not to allow further breeding of captive chimpanzees outside of a Zoo Species Survival Plan setting.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:42 AM on June 21, 2018 [22 favorites]


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((((\)     (/))))
posted by wires at 7:54 AM on June 21, 2018 [8 favorites]


What are some good places to donate to help primates?
posted by WeekendJen at 7:56 AM on June 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


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I know that there were a lot of arguments about the real significance of what she did, but I didn't know about them when I was a kid, and Koko meant a lot to me. I had my parents' copy of Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden, which had a chapter on communications with animals. I reread that book a lot, especially that chapter, and although she wasn't in it, I knew she was one of those special creatures. The way that study apes seemed to invent language as they went along -- watermelons were "candy drink fruit," radishes were "cry hurt food" -- stayed with me: the strange, simple beauty of the phrases, and the idea of another person, another kind of person, learning to speak to us in a way we could understand, maybe someday telling us more ... It was a huge idea to carry around.

Around that time, I remember that I often noticed a VHS cover in the local store with KOKO written in blood letters on a black background. I hated that because I thought they'd made a horror movie about Koko where she started killing people, because gorillas are always monsters in movies. (This does not actually seem to have ever happened, but I can't find out what that movie was.)

Koko should have had a natural life, but the life she did have was full of love and companionship, and apparently food. Koko, I, too, "love eat," and I will miss you.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:03 AM on June 21, 2018 [14 favorites]


If you want to directly impact gorilla conservation, I'd suggest the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which does really excellent research and conservation work in Rwanda, Uganda, and Democratic Republic of Congo on mountain gorillas (the population is up to more than 1,000 individuals)! GRACE is working in Democratic Republic of Congo to conserve and research Grauer's Gorillas (they also have this amazing video of a rehabilitating baby Grauer's gorilla being tickled). I don't know anything about the Cross River Gorilla organization, but they're soliciting donations and I know that the World Wildlife Foundation is also directly involved with on-the-ground conservation in Nigeria and Cameroon.

If you're interested in helping captive gorillas, the Great Ape Heart Project is an amazing initiative out of Zoo Atlanta that's working on preventing, treating, and understanding heart disease in zoo gorillas who are sedentary and eating carbohydrate-rich diets.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:07 AM on June 21, 2018 [15 favorites]


Arguments about the validity of the developed language behavior aside. Koko and the other great apes had an enormous impact on people thinking of our fellow primates as something other than beasts. I don't care if it's anthropomorphization, it's encouraged people to think that maybe the other inhabitants of this world as worthy of saving.

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posted by drewbage1847 at 8:07 AM on June 21, 2018 [22 favorites]


Arguments about the validity of the developed language behavior aside. Koko and the other great apes had an enormous impact on people thinking of our fellow primates as something other than beasts. I don't care if it's anthropomorphization, it's encouraged people to think that maybe the other inhabitants of this world as worthy of saving.

I was coming in to say exactly this. Both Fred Rogers and Robin Williams had anecdotes about meeting Koko which they related to others, both of which no doubt cemented Koko in people's minds as being a thinking individual, with tastes and preferences and memory and... They were telling these stories on talk shows as opposed to scientific meetings, but the people who heard those stories weren't scientists either anyway, and arguably were the ones who need to hear that particular message.

(For the record: Fred Rogers said that during their meeting, Koko took his shoes off for him. And as for Robin Williams - he suspects that Koko was trying to hit on him.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:32 AM on June 21, 2018 [6 favorites]


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posted by supermedusa at 8:55 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by JoeXIII007 at 9:02 AM on June 21, 2018


Aww.

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posted by shiny blue object at 9:24 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by Quasirandom at 9:29 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by blurker at 10:03 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:10 AM on June 21, 2018


Countess Elena: I often noticed a VHS cover in the local store with KOKO written in blood letters on a black background

Could it have been related to the Peter Straub novel?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:12 AM on June 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


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posted by doctor_negative at 10:34 AM on June 21, 2018


I'm also a skeptic of some of the broader language claims, but I have no doubt that our fellow primates are "human enough" to be worthy of moral, ethical, and even religious regard.

When the last gorilla, the last bonobo, the last chimpanzee, the last orangoutang disappear as did the neanderthals and other hominids, we will find ourselves truly as alone as we always thought we were, perhaps as alone as we always wished to be. Living primate species are our last mirror in which we can see the evolution of our cognitive and emotional selves. I do not know we can necessarily survive that.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:43 AM on June 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


I have cried about this on and off since last night. It wasn't the language stuff that was important to me...it was the empathy stuff.

I remember growing up with kids who figured out that animals have feelings from watching Koko film in school in the early 80s.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 10:53 AM on June 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


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posted by Secretariat at 11:02 AM on June 21, 2018


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This year. Goddammit.
posted by Faintdreams at 11:04 AM on June 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


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posted by Anita Bath at 11:05 AM on June 21, 2018


Koko was only a few years older than me. Regardless of the debates about Koko's abilities, I was deeply affected from an early age by the videos of Koko talking about being lonely and sad, talking about wanting a baby, and loving her cats. If we can accept those complaints at any value, Koko herself made the argument against further studies like hers. She learned to communicate with us (or not), but in the process, she gave up her relationship with her own species.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:06 AM on June 21, 2018 [5 favorites]


Requiescat in pace. My thoughts are with the humans and nonhumans that made up her family.

Just to echo what ChuraChura said above, biomedical research in the nonhuman great apes has essentially ended. Most developed nations have banned it entirely, and in the U.S. it is NIH policy that biomedical research in chimpanzees is no longer funded. Some drug companies still own chimpanzees, but all have committed to ending their research programs, and it is expected that by 2020 all of the remaining chimps in the U.S. will have been retired to sanctuaries. I'm not specifically aware of any biomedical research occurring using other great ape species.

I'm also not aware of much language research in great apes continuing, but there is still other ongoing cognitive and behavioral research that has quite a bit to teach us about our closest living relatives and our own cognitive mechanisms. One of my favorite projects is run by Zoo Atlanta, where gorillas are given the opportunity to enter a testing area and interact with computers that researchers can program with tasks that investigate specific cognitive questions. Participation by the gorillas is "voluntary," in that they are not forced or coerced to enter the testing area, and do so only to entertain themselves and/or receive tasty food rewards. Overall the research projects are generally regarded as cognitive enrichment. (If you have the opportunity to go to Zoo Atlanta and check out the gorillas, I can't recommend it highly enough. It's the best zoo environment for great apes I've ever seen.) I believe this research remains invaluable, and programs like this are a great example of how it can be done ethically.

I hope the Kokos of the future will continue to be able to be ambassadors for their species and provide humanity with scientific discovery, in an ethical, empathetic fashion that places their welfare as a primary priority. And I hope that their contributions to our species encourage us to repay the debt by making sure we help preserve theirs.
posted by biogeo at 11:13 AM on June 21, 2018 [7 favorites]


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posted by pt68 at 11:13 AM on June 21, 2018


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posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:44 AM on June 21, 2018


Hope she's in a lovely jungle with Ball, with lots of food, water, light, and love.
posted by stillmoving at 11:46 AM on June 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


I am NOT skeptical, and I believe Koko knew exactly what she was saying. Rest in peace, gentle soul.
posted by agregoli at 12:28 PM on June 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


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posted by Joey Michaels at 1:11 PM on June 21, 2018


“I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.

In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.

Baby, drink milk.

Baby, play ball.

And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.”
posted by jesourie at 1:34 PM on June 21, 2018 [6 favorites]


I’m sorry she’s gone. Koko was very cool.
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posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:37 PM on June 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


Language acquisition is a mark of intelligence, so it's humbling that Koko was more successful at mastering human communication methods than any human has been at mastering gorilla communication methods.

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posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:28 PM on June 21, 2018 [4 favorites]




🤟
posted by theora55 at 4:12 PM on June 21, 2018


From Dr. Chuck Tingle: koko was certified true buckaroo

NOT ALL TRUE BUCKAROOS ARE HUMAN BEINGS. KOKO THE GORILLA PROVED THAT LOVE IS REAL EVEN FOR ANIMALS. PLEASE REMEMBER WHEN YOU TROT TO PROVE LOVE THAT ANIMALS HAVE AN IMPORTANT TROT OF THEIR OWN TOO.

TRUE BUCKAROO KOKO
JULY 4, 1971 - JUNE 19, 2018
(THIS TIMELINE)

posted by Capt. Renault at 6:46 PM on June 21, 2018 [8 favorites]


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posted by bjgeiger at 7:00 PM on June 21, 2018


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One of the surprising legacies of Koko is that she has become a favored topic for standardized test reading section passages.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 7:22 PM on June 21, 2018


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posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:03 PM on June 21, 2018


From Slate: The Real Meaning of Koko’s Purported Nipple Fetish

... there’s one creepy and uncomfortable story the obits aren’t telling—which is a shame, because of all the stories about Koko and the research she was involved in, it’s the most revealing.

That story: the sexual harassment suit.

posted by ShooBoo at 10:18 PM on June 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


Wow, that's really interesting. Thank you for bringing that.

I've always felt that, sexually, animals lack culpability in the way that humans have it. I don't know if this is a leftover from my very early lessons about original sin or just a natural adjustment to a lifetime of living with pets who, as a rule, are far franker about their interest in genitals than we are.

Does Koko have the mens rea to harass when she demands to see nipples? I would say no, because she has no understanding of the context of what she is saying, or of why it is creepier than "show me your toy cars." So she should have been kindly but firmly denied. But someone who directly answers this large creature with, "Yes, of course your new friends will show you their nipples!" That person should have a theory of mind and, more importantly, a theory of not telling other adult humans to take off their shirts. The kindest interpretation is that people who devote their lives to animals tend to get very strange after a few decades.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:22 AM on June 22, 2018 [4 favorites]


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The posts above about isolation from their species, but also about medical testing on great apes being shut down, put me in mind of this recent short sci-fi story on Tor.com that just sort of transfixed me.
posted by gusandrews at 10:17 PM on June 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


:( strong reminder that i want to learn a sign language. thank you, Koko

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posted by one teak forest at 9:26 AM on June 23, 2018


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