COWs are Ape for Koko!

October 21, 2011

Woodside is a Town known for its appreciation of the natural world, from our beautiful oak forests to our love of horses… and gorillas?

As many don’t know is that the famous gorilla Koko is a COW since she has been a longtime resident of our Town. The 300-pound Western Lowland Gorilla is a world-renowned ape who has been celebrated for her language abilities. It is claimed that she knows and can communicate 1,000 words in an adapted American Sign Language, and knows another 2,000 words of verbal English. Given that many Americans only use 1,000 unique words in their daily speech, that is something to MOO about..

Koko has lived for many years at the Gorilla Foundation’s facility in Woodside. She was born on the Fourth of July, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. According to Wikipedia, her given name is Hanabiko meaning ‘fireworks child’ in Japanese, referring to her auspicious birthday. Dr. Penny Patterson, the Foundation’s president and scientific director, has been working with Koko in her research on language since the 1970s.

Koko has actually had several pets over the years, including a Manx kitten that she herself named ‘All Ball’, and was featured in a children’s book written by Dr. Patterson (here). Sadly, several months after Koko began taking care of her and by all accounts, doinga great job), the little cat escaped her enclosure and was run over by a car. Koko was reported to have signed, “Bad, sad, bad” and “Frown, cry, frown, sad,” which Dr. Patterson says shows Koko felt grief at the loss of her pet. Over the years, Koko has had other animal companions as well –Manx cats named ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Smokey’, a rabbit, and a parrot that flew into her cage and that she named ‘Devil Tooth’.

Koko did have a male silverback gorilla companion named Michael, who learned approximately 600 signs. Unfortunately, he and Koko didn’t mate before he died in 2000. Koko’s current male gorilla companion is named Ndume. Koko actually selected him from a variety of other potential mates via “video dating” (see the video clip) You can watch their meeting on YouTube. Koko is said to want to have a child of her own these days – female gorillas can be fertile through their early forties. In a story written about Koko and the Gorilla Foundation, Alex Hannaford reported that Dr. Patterson says, “A mother gorilla and baby in isolation aren’t healthy. Zoos have discovered this… it takes a village to raise a baby gorilla – just like humans.” The hope is that another wildlife facility would loan the Foundation two female gorillas, and that all four adult gorillas would raise a child together as a group.

While there has long been controversy over to what extent Koko’s language abilities show true thought and conversation, or whether she makes signs only to please researchers and get treats, those closest to her insist that there’s more to Koko than that. As for us, we’re just pleased that such an illustrious resident enjoys our woods as much as we do!

For a fascinating first-hand account of a visit with Koko, please read Mr. Hannaford’s excellent article in the magazine The Week.

You can learn much more about the Gorilla Foundation and our neighbor Koko here.

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