Hanabiko the western lowland gorilla, known popularly as “Koko,” died in her sleep on Tuesday, according to her caretakers at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California. She was 46.
As the most famous member of her species in the world, Koko dazzled friends and fans with her bubbly personality, sophisticated communication skills, and compassion for other animals. Her ability to express herself through sign language, music, and artwork distinguished her as a beloved icon of primate intelligence and an ambassador for animal rights.
“The Gorilla Foundation is sad to announce the passing of our beloved Koko,” reads a press release from the research center. “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.”
Koko was born on July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo, and was named Hanabiko (Japanese for “fireworks child”) in honor of her birthdate. While she was an infant, Hanabiko, or Koko for short, met Stanford University graduate student Francine “Penny” Patterson, who would go on to found the Gorilla Foundation and become Koko’s lifelong caretaker and teacher.
By 1972, Patterson had begun teaching the young gorilla to recognize spoken words, and to respond using American Sign Language gestures. The Gorilla Foundation claims that over her lifetime Koko learned 2,000 spoken words and mastered 1,000 signs, including “queen”—one of the primate’s favorite descriptions of herself.
Koko’s conversational skills landed her a spot as the cover girl for National Geographic in 1978; famously, she snapped her own portrait for the magazine. The issue launched Koko into stardom, and generated substantial academic research and debate over the nature of her capabilities.
One of Koko’s most charming qualities was her love of cute animals. After asking for a cat for Christmas in 1983, Koko was given a stuffed animal, which just didn’t cut it. Reportedly, she signed “sad” at the attempt to fulfill her request. She never did play with the toy.
So on Koko’s birthday the following year, foundation aides gifted her with a real Manx kitten, who she named “All Ball.” Her gentle affection for the cat, and subsequent grief when All Ball was killed by a car, further endeared Koko to the public. She has since cared for many other pets, and most recently received two kittens for her birthday in 2015.
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Over her lifetime, Koko produced numerous captivating paintings and dabbled with bass guitar and recorder. She welcomed celebrities like Fred Rogers, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robin Williams to her home, and delighted in playing games with her visitors. “We shared something extraordinary—laughter,” Williams said of his 2001 hangout with Koko. “It was awesome and unforgettable.”
Awesome and unforgettable: A succinct way to sum up Koko’s impact on the world, if there ever was one. Throughout her life, she demonstrated that empathy, language, and friendship are far from unique to humans. She will be remembered as a powerful emblem of interspecies connection.
Rest in peace, Queen Koko.
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