Ask Koko

Koko is one of the most talked about gorillas alive today, most notably because of her ability to communicate through a form of sign language. Read on to discover more about Koko and what happened when Save the Earth teamed up with The Gorilla Foundation to #AskKoko a question as part of our crowdfunding campaign.

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Courtesy of The Gorilla Foundation/

Koko and the Gorilla Foundation

Koko’s caregiver and instructor, animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson, reports that Koko is able to understand more than 1,000 signs of Gorilla Sign Language, comprehend 2,000 words of spoken English and communicate complex thoughts and feelings.

Penny has worked with Koko since 1972, when she began teaching the then one-year-old ape sign language as part of her in Ph.D. in Psychology at Stanford University. In 1976, Penny formed The Gorilla Foundation – a non-profit organisation established in order to purchase Koko from San Francisco Zoo.

According to their website, The Gorilla Foundation “has been exploring interspecies communication with gorillas for over four decades, through an integrated process of research and gorilla care that focuses on using sign language as a primary tool for understanding the great ape mind and its potential.” The foundation adopts a holistic approach to their communication, conservation, education, and care programmes, incorporating naturalistic observation and experimental methods where possible and prioritising the physical, social, and emotional needs of the apes above all else.

Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has remained in the foundation’s care ever since the ’70s. She currently lives in their facilities in the Santa Cruz mountains, California, where she is free to roam outside 365 day a year. Penny’s nearby home in Woodside means that they can spend plenty of time together. Over the years, the pair have formed a unique and inseparable bond, which is evident in the documentary Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks to People.

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Koko and Penny – courtesy of The Gorilla Foundation/

Save the Earth’s Partnership with the Gorilla Foundation – #AskKoko Competition Results

In 2016, Save the Earth launched a crowdfunder campaign, which exceeded its £4,500 fundraising target in just 42 days. Thanks to the generosity of 85 supporters, we were able to incorporate our organisation and expand our website – both of which were essential for us to pursue our mission of supporting key ethical and green projects both in the UK and overseas.

It is Save the Earth’s wish to give something back to each and every individual who responded to our appeal – that’s why, when we launched the crowdfunder, we decided it would be a wonderful idea to offer a variety of rewards in exchange for the amounts that contributors pledged. This included entry into the #AskKoko draw for everyone who donated £10.

We are delighted to announce that the #AskKoko competition winners are Aleks Evtimov and Sandra Debosschere. The couple live in Belgium with their cat, “the majestic Shiva”. Aleks describes himself as an individual who is passionate about nature and the protection of the environment. With a background in law, he now pursues an activist journey, raising awareness of deforestation, biodiversity and climate change through expanding an online community of like-minded people. Check out his website and Facebook page, which has more than 200,000 followers.

Aleks and Sandra were invited to make a video asking Koko a question of their choice, which was then played to her. “We would like to get as strong as you,” Sandra begins, with Shiva in her arms. “So we were wondering – what is your favourite food?” Aleks adds. Watch the clip below, to find out what Koko had to say …

The couple are delighted with Koko’s response: “Thank you so very much for this, I absolutely love the video!” Aleks enthused to Save the Earth. “I’ve just shown it to Sandra as well and we’re so glad that Koko saw Shiva!”

Notable regards for the making of this video go to Koko, Penny Patterson and Gary Stanley, Director of Education at The Gorilla Foundation.

Five Koko Facts

1) Koko is short for Hanabiko, meaning “fireworks child” in Japanese – a fitting name given that she was born in San Francisco on 4th July 1971 – American Independence Day.

2) At the age of 19, Koko successfully passed a “Mirror Test” of self-recognition – which most other gorillas fail.

3) In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Koko shot to fame after National Geographic featured her on its cover twice.

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Koko- Save the earth

Courtesy of The Gorilla Foundation/

4) Koko is one of the few known non-humans to keep pets. When she asked for a cat for Christmas in 1983, she was given a lifelike stuffed animal but did not want to play with him and repeatedly signed the word “sad.” The Gorilla Foundation changed tack and let Koko choose a kitten from an abandoned litter. She selected a grey and white male Manx, who she can be seen with on the January 1985 National Geographic cover above. Koko, who loves to rhyme, named the kitten “All Ball” after watching him curl up in a tiny bundle. Two additional Manx kittens Lipstick and Smoky followed, with Koko’s current feline companions named by her as Ms. Black and Ms. Gray.

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Courtesy of The Gorilla Foundation/

5) It stands to reason that a gorilla as famous as Koko has rubbed shoulders with many famous people in her time. In 2001, she was visited by the actor Robin Williams and the pair became fast friends, Williams making Koko laugh for the first time in months. When, 13 years on, she learned of his untimely death she sat hunched over with a quivering lip and signed the words “lip cry” – lip being her word for woman. Here’s a video of Koko in happier times with Flea, bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, trying her hand at some slap bass.

Courtesy of The Gorilla Foundation/

Make a Donation

If you’re interested in supporting Koko and the Gorilla Foundation you can make a donation. Your tax-deductible contribution will help save gorillas all year round by enabling the foundation to share its research and create high-impact multimedia content which champions the power of interspecies communication. What’s more, when you donate you’ll receive a copy of the 2017 Koko & Friends Calendar picturing Koko with a host of celebrities who have been inspired by her intelligence and emotional depth – this includes not only Robin Williams and Flea, but also Sting, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jesse James, Peter Gabriel and William Shatner, among others.

While Save the Earth’s writers can’t offer you a calendar (maybe next year, bagsy Miss March) we can offer you regular fresh content on our blog, exploring subjects which spark your passions and ours. From nature to green energy and organic food to eco communities, your donation of a virtual coffee will help fuel us to write about the issues that matter most – those that enable us all to Save the Earth.

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I’ll leave you with a message from Koko:

“I am gorilla, I am flowers, animals. I am nature. Koko love man. Earth Koko love.”





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