Koko, the Gorilla Who Knew Sign Language, Has Died

If there are two specific gorillas that you know, one is probably Harambe, the western lowland gorilla that was fatally shot in 2016 after a three-year-old boy climbed into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and zoo employees who felt the kid’s life was in danger took action. The other is likely Koko, another western lowland gorilla who knew sign language, had a bevy of celebrity friends, and harbored a particular fondness for cats. There’s news to share about Koko today, and unfortunately, it’s not good news: The Gorilla Foundation, which previously cared for Koko, announced that the gorilla died in its sleep on Tuesday morning at 46 years old.

Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute notes that the lifespan for this species of gorilla is about 30 to 40 years in the wild, while gorillas under human care can live into their 50s, so it seems like it was just Koko’s time.

Koko was born in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson began working with Koko in 1972, teaching the gorilla sign language, and shortly after that, Koko became famous, appearing on the cover of National Geographic in 1978. Koko’s notoriety also earned her a roster of loving celebrity friends, including Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Mr. Rogers, and perhaps most famously, Robin Williams. Koko has helped increase our understanding of animals’ ability to communicate and to feel varied and intense emotions, so her contributions to science and mankind more broadly are invaluable.

What is your favorite memory of Koko? Share your thoughts down in the comments!

Featured image: The Gorilla Foundation

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