Long Live Koko — Fine Gorilla-Person
Anthony L Rose, PhD / Biosynergy Institute / Center for Studies of the Person, La Jolla, California
I mourn deeply the passing of a dear and loving friend. Koko, the gorilla-person who taught us to trust our loving bonds across the divide to different species, has died in her sleep. Today, July 4th is her 47th birthday.
In the 20 years since I first met Koko at the Gorilla Foundation, I’ve traveled the world telling the tale of talking gorillas and their devoted human family. Indeed, I count myself as an uncle in that family. Early in our relationship I befriended, mourned, and wrote a book about Koko’s brother gorilla, Michael, and his dream for a world of peace. Now that Koko has left this world, we who believe in her message must redouble our commitment to assure that her legacy of love for all living beings continues.
I visited Koko nearly every time I went to work with Penny Patterson, Ron Cohn, and their colleagues at The Gorilla Foundation. It was I who took copies of Koko’s Kitten into the rainforest, read it to gorilla hunters, and helped them find compassion for these kindly great apes. The first man to give up hunting endangered apes was my dear friend, Joseph Melloh-Mindako. Joseph had shot, butchered, and sold the meat of over a hundred gorillas and chimps in the rainforests of Cameroon, before I met him. It’s been two decades since Joseph and I sat in a thatch and bamboo shelter, a rough-and-ready hunting camp deep in the forest, talking about the grief Koko felt when she was told her baby kitten friend “All Ball” had died.
“Is it true that a gorilla cries? Even when a kitten she played with is killed? She must wail very loud when the death is another gorilla,” declared Joseph.
It was only two years later, in 2000, that Koko did “wail very loud”. She cried deeply, long into the night and for days to come, when her dear younger brother Michael who had grown into a magnificent silverback gorilla was found dead in their enclosure. I cried too, for my connection with Michael had been strong, life defining. I presided at Michael’s memorial where Penny, Ron, and scores of friends spoke of Michael’s brilliance as a storyteller, artist, musician and protector of his gorilla/human family. Penny and I wrote a book about him called “Michael’s Dream” and in Africa his life story became legend as a companion tale to Koko’s Kitten.
Millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Africans have read and discussed those books about Koko and her brother, and have acknowledged that humans are not the only animals to bond lovingly with others. The first step towards becoming a true conservationist is realizing that there is a form of “personhood” in every living being, and that we humans must respect that personhood with compassion, caring, and inclusion as kindred spirits.
If Michael’s dream gives us a vision of a compassionate future, then Koko’s story offers a real world anchor for all lives and all time. As central figure in the most remarkable inter-species family in history, Koko becomes the linchpin for humanity in our quest to reverse our horrible greed and restore biosynergy to this embattled planet. Koko loved Penny Patterson as much as any daughter ever loved a mother. Penny returned that love through her lifelong daily devotion to keeping Koko healthy and happy. I witnessed that devotion at least thirty times, directly.
Every time I visited Gorilla Foundation, our meetings to work on book writing, research, conservation education programs, or fund raising were scheduled around Penny and Koko’s daily communion. If Koko felt badly, we discussed how to help her heal, and Penny went off early to tend to her daughter. If Koko was in good spirits, we got our work done happily and with optimism. On very good days, Koko might ask Penny whom she had been working with in the morning. Next I knew Penny was on the phone: “Tony, Koko said she’d like to see you. Do you have time to come up and visit?” I never said “No.” To sit and talk with Koko was a profound experience for me — tender, curious, loving & deep, unforgettable.
I remember the last time I sat on the veranda outside Koko’s living room. It was a mild spring day and I was heavy laden with reports from a conservation workshop our Africa-based partners had conducted in Cameroon. For nearly two decades teachers were trained to use Koko’s Kitten as a humane values enhancer in over 300 schools. We now had pre- and post intervention data on the impact that Michael’s story added to the tales of Koko. I was eager to share new insights into the emotional and ethical factors that would enable Koko and Michael’s stories to convert bushmeat consumers into wildlife conservationists.
As I came up the stairs, Koko ambled to the edge of her enclosure, leaned against the chain-link wall and purred. I sat beside her, leaned in, and purred back. Koko pointed at me, signed something I thought meant “love” and I signed “love” back, clumsily. Koko switched her attention to Penny and began signing. As always, my poor signing ability was a disappointment that Koko overcame by asking Penny to translate. After another couple of interactions, Penny laughed and told me: “Koko said, … well … she loves you even if you are stupid! I told her you’re too old to learn sign language, and she signed ‘silver hair — stupid’.”
The gorilla leaned her face closer and blew a long breath towards me. I sent her my breath kiss in return. I told her that my friends in Africa wrote me to say they love Koko and think she is a fine gorilla-person. I told Koko that her story and her life were making people love gorillas more. Told her thanks for being so sweet. Said “I love you, Koko” and when I began to tear up, she sighed, and turned away to look outside the window. The last time I visited Koko, we talked, laughed, cried and sat together sharing a spring day.
In the world of human-animal relations where I’ve focused many decades of research and writing, the family of Koko and her compatriots is an inter-species connection that transcends all others. Sadly, there are many unfortunate people who relate to other animals as things to use, abuse, and discard. At best they see other species as “pets” held in slavery, and deny the mutual value of bonds between man-at-the-pinnacle and the beasts-below-us. But our interest here is those women and men who have tried to make other animals their partners, and have made all life better for the sake of that communion. Within that many billion-person group, Koko’s family is unique.
The most devoted horse-person, from America to Mongolia, goes home at night to commune with a human family. Men and women who rely on Seeing Eye dogs to guide them, and persons whose house cats bring them restorative companionship, still primarily seek fulfilling associations with other people. In short, the union of humans and those domestic animals with whom we have co-evolved for many thousands of years are considered secondary to our own human union. Yes, we unite with other animals at key moments in our lives; sometimes as the highlight of every day. But we rarely make them our co-equals in mind, emotion, and life story. We keep and treasure them for the value they share with us. Then we return to humankind.
Very few of us commune as equal partners with other animals. There is one tiny niche in which people have tried to share their personal needs, emotions, and ideas round the clock with other species. That niche is the arena of inter-species communication between humans and our great ape cousins.
Penny Patterson and Ron Cohn adopted Koko and Michael as infants. Together they developed common language, shared livelihood and communal biosynergy, and made a mutual commitment to maintain their inter-species family for life. Over time — 47 years time — a host of other beings have joined this unique inter-species family. Some stayed a few months, some many years. A few — notably Koko, the male silverback Ndume who became patriarch when Michael passed on, and a handful of dedicated human volunteers — have committed to lifelong loyalty to this amazing human/gorilla family.
People have tried to live in similar synergy with other apes. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos have all been part of such experiments in inter-species living in the USA and Europe. Projects in which diverse apes and researchers developed a shared language have demonstrated keen cognitive and emotional capacity in our great ape kin. These innovations in gestural and symbolic communication provide insights into great ape — human mutuality that offers potential benefits to all species. Unfortunately, support for such projects has declined in recent years.
Perhaps the most promising places to study inter-species communication and mutuality are in Africa. The Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) provides safe refuge and compassionate care-giving for over 1,000 orphan gorillas, chimps and bonobos whose families have been slaughtered by bushmeat hunters. While Koko and Michael’s stories help sanctuary workers appreciate the intellectual and emotional depth of the apes they care for, efforts to improve inter-species communication and understanding in sanctuary settings have been rare, given the cost.
Interest in the practical improvement of nonverbal communication among humans has been strong for many decades. In the 1970’s, with colleagues at Center for Studies of the Person (CSP) in California, I developed & published tools for enhancing human physical and emotional communication. Adaptations of “Body Talk” and “The Feel Wheel” (Psychology Today Games) are still used in schools and mental health centers today. In partnership with The Gorilla Foundation, the CSP Biosynergy Institute will initiate the Gorilla Talk Project with the goal to revise those tools and develop new methods for enhancing compassionate and caring human-ape communication in ape sanctuaries across the USA, Europe, and Africa.
Now that Koko has left this world, we who have been inspired by her compassionate communion with humans and other animals must assure that Koko’s legacy of communicating love for all living beings is expanded and disseminated worldwide. The Gorilla Talk Project aims to help that happen. Perhaps one day there will be families like Koko’s around the world.
Only at The Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, have humans and gorillas succeeded in maintaining a complete inter-species nuclear family that was designed to be together in communion so long as they all shall live. Now the star of great ape communication and compassion has passed on. Koko — the gorilla who taught us to care for others has died: long live Koko!
Michael died when he was 27. Koko left us a week before her 48th birthday. Ndume remains, for now. Fortunately, Penny and Ron, and a score of devoted researchers, caregivers, educators, and supporters carry on the mission to tell the world the Gorilla Foundation’s profound and important discoveries. May the story of lifelong inter-species synergy inspire us forever more.
— Anthony L Rose, PhD — July 4, 2018
Readers: Money earned by this essay will support the nonprofit Gorilla Talk Project, which Dr. Rose directs at Center for Studies of the Person to enhance person-centered compassion among all living beings.