Koko, the famous gorilla who knew sign language and brought people together with her demeanour, has passed away at the age of 46.
Even if you’re not a huge animal advocate chances are that you knew who Koko the gorilla was. This special animal knew sign language, snuggled with kittens, met dozens of famous figures, and was a beautiful soul overall. Though news of Koko started dying down over the years, millions knew who she was either through the media or viral videos of a giant gorilla cuddling with a tiny kitten.
She was a remarkable animal with a strong capacity for love and language. She learned over 1,000 words in sign language, knew approximately 2,000 words in English, quite literally took photos of herself (a picture that graced the cover of National Geographic), and was a fascinating case for scientists as she broke the barrier of language between animal and man. She was also featured on the cover of National Geographic for a second time as she held a kitten close to her chest.
Barbara King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary told National Geographic that “because she was smart enough to comprehend and use aspects of our language, Koko could show us what all great apes are capable of: reasoning about their world, and loving and grieving the other beings to whom they become attached.”
Koko gained a significant amount of fame in what is perhaps her most famous encounter with the late Robin Williams in 2001. Video footage of their encounter is still available online, which shows Koko and Williams sharing a laugh and Koko even trying on Williams’ glasses. In a 2014 statement released by the Gorilla Foundation, they wrote: “Robin made Koko smile — something she hadn’t done for over 6 months, ever since her lifelong gorilla companion, Michael, passed away at the age of 27. But not only did Robin cheer up Koko, the effect was mutual, and Robin seemed transformed — from a high-energy entertainer, into a mellow, sensitive, empathetic guy, who also just happened to be really funny.”
The video of their encounter also shows an adorable moment where Williams tickles Koko until they both start laughing. The Gorilla Association stated that when Koko was told of Williams’ passing, she was noticeably distraught, bowed her head, and pushed her lower lip out.
The Gorilla Association released a statement on June 20 acknowledging Koko’s passing and reminded everyone that they “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.”
People on social media, including public figures, expressed their condolences for Koko’s passing. Many users on Twitter shared videos of Koko’s greatest moments, which included her spending time with researchers, picking up and snuggling her kittens, and various moments with celebrities like Fred Rogers and Betty White.