Koko Gorilla Who talks to People on BBC1

koko gorilla

Koko Gorilla Who talks to People on BBC1

Hanabiko “Koko” was born on July 4, 1971 and is a female western lowland gorilla who is famous for having learned a large number of hand signs from a modified version of American Sign Language.

Her carer, Penny Patterson, reports that Koko is able to understand over 1,000 signs of what Patterson calls “Gorilla Sign Language”. In contrast to other experiments attempting to teach sign language to non-human primates, Patterson simultaneously exposed Koko to spoken English from an early age. Reports state that Koko understands approximately 2,000 words of spoken English, in addition to the signs. Koko’s life and learning process has been described by Patterson and some of her collaborators in a number of books, and on a website.

As with other great ape language experiments, the extent to which Koko has mastered and demonstrates these signs was disputed in a study published in 1999. But it is generally accepted that she does not use syntax or grammar, and that her use of language does not exceed that of a young human child.

Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo and has spent most of her life in Woodside, California, although a move to a sanctuary on Maui, Hawaii, has been planned since the 1990s. The name Hanabiko literally “fireworks child” is a reference to her date of birth being Fourth of July. Koko also gained publicity when she reportedly adopted a kitten.

Koko was originally loaned to Francine Patterson for her doctoral research, but has stayed with Patterson ever since, with support by The Gorilla Foundation. Koko’s weight is much higher than would be normal for a gorilla in the wild, which may be due to her diet which includes some human food items, including processed meat and sweets. For a while, Koko lived with another gorilla, Michael, who also learned sign language but died in 2000. She now lives with a male gorilla called Ndume.

See the full story on BBC1 20.30 Wednesday 15 June

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