Koko, the western lowland gorilla who mastered sign language and became a world icon, has died in her sleep at the age of 42.
The Gorilla Foundation, non-profit organization working to preserve and protect gorillas, issued a statement the following day: “Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”
According to a blog post by The Gorilla Foundation, Koko enjoyed reading and being read to. She was also a skilled painter. Koko had several kittens of which she was very fond and protective of throughout her lifetime, revealing to the world that apes are capable of tenderness and great emotional depth. Here she is choosing two new buddies for her birthday in 2015:
Not without controversy, Koko rocked the scientific community worldwide as the gorilla who could “speak,” becoming a figurehead for the conservation of her species. Researchers claimed she understood over 2,000 words of spoken English and could easily keep up with human conversations.
Koko’s abilities made headlines throughout the course of her life. She was on the cover of National Geographic twice — the first time, she took her own picture in a mirror.
In 2001, Koko made friends with comedian Robin Williams. She kissed his hand, tried on his glasses, and asked him to tickle her. They played tag and laughed and made faces at one another, and when Robin Williams tragically passed away in 2014, Koko was said to grieve deeply for her friend.
Scientists were stunned when in 2012, Koko learned to play the recorder. This newfound ability meant that primates can learn to control their breathing in order to produce a desired result, which had previously been assumed to be beyond their abilities.
Koko the gorilla showed that communication between humans and primates was possible. She was living proof of her species’ great capacity for intelligence, both mental and emotional. Barbara J. King wrote about Koko’s reaction after her kitten Ball was hit by a car in 1984.
“Famously, Koko felt quite sad in 1984 when her adopted kitten Ball was hit by a car and died. How do we know? Here is nonhuman primate grief mediated through language: In historical footage in the film, Patterson is seen asking Koko, “What happened to Ball?” In reply, Koko utters these signs in sequence: cat, cry, have-sorry, Koko-love. And then, after a pause, two more signs: unattention, visit me.”
Now, it is the world’s turn to grieve for Koko. Thousands have taken to social media, posting tributes to the gorilla on Twitter as well as the Gorilla Foundation’s Facebook page.
“The foundation will continue to honor Koko’s legacy and advance our mission with ongoing projects including conservation efforts in Africa, the great ape sanctuary on Maui, and a sign language application featuring Koko for the benefit of both gorillas and children,” said The Gorilla Foundation.
RIP TO A TRUE LEGEND.