Koko, the gorilla who knew sign language, dies aged 46

  Last updated July 5, 2018 at 9:47 am


Gorilla made friends with Robin Williams and became a celebrity herself.

Koko with Dr Francine Patterson. Credit: The Gorilla Foundation

Koko, the western lowland gorilla that famously learned sign language and befriend Robin Williams and other celebrities, has died aged 46.

The Gorilla Foundation said she died peacefully in her sleep at the foundation’s estate in California.

Koko was born in San Francisco Zoo in 1971, and was taught sign language by Dr Francine Patterson, a researcher, as part of a Stanford University project that began in 1974. Koko was said to understand around 2,000 words.

The foundation acknowledge the affection in which Koko was held by the public. Her capacity for language and empathy opened the minds and hearts of millions of people, it said.

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication.

“She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

Koko appeared in many documentaries and her fame spread.

Williams and she met in 2001, in what the actor said was a “mind-altering experience.” A video of their encounter shows the pair holding hand and tickling each other, with Koko try on Wiliams’ glasses.

“We shared something extraordinary: Laughter,” Williams said. “Koko understands spoken English and uses over 1,000 signs to share her feelings and thoughts about daily events. Life, love, even death.”

“It was awesome and unforgettable.”

When he died in 2014, Patterson told Koko who she said reacted in a “quiet and very thoughtful” way.

“Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world,” the Gorilla Foundation said.

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Bill Condie
Bill is former Head of Publishing at the Royal Institution of Australia. Previously he was Publisher of the popular science magazine, Cosmos, based in Melbourne, Australia. Bill has been a journalist for more than 30 years and his work has been published in Cosmos magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard.