Thought Catalog
February 24, 2011

Koko, The “Talking” Gorilla

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The first page of this essay is an introduction to Koko and The Gorilla Foundation. The second page is an overview of Koko’s brand. The third page focuses on specific aspects of Koko’s brand. The fourth page discusses Koko’s goals and future. The fifth page contains selected Tweets from The Gorilla Foundation’s Twitter account. The sixth page contains selected photos from KokoPix, The Gorilla Foundation’s “photo blog.”


Koko was born in 1971 as Hanabi-Ko at San Francisco Zoo. She was described as “tiny,” “unnourished,” “sickly,” “cheerful and curious.” At 12 months, suffering from near-death malnutrition, she was separated from her biological mother and adopted by Penny Patterson, a 24/25-year-old graduate student, who began teaching her American Sign Language (ASL). The Education of Koko, about Dr. Penny Patterson’s experiences as Koko’s mother and teacher, was published in 1981 with a quote from Koko re herself on the cover: “Fine animal gorilla.”

Today Koko can comprehend ~2000 words of spoken English and more than 1000 signs of ASL. Her placid, zany, surreally idyllic, somewhat mysterious life on an indoor/outdoor compound in Northern California with a number of cats/dogs/humans and one other gorilla is nurtured, documented, and promoted by The Gorilla Foundation via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and in a tonally distinct and consistent manner—with captioned photographs (KokoPix), videos (KokoFlix), staff-written anecdotes (KokoBLOG), coverage of auxiliary characters, and brief descriptions of her daily activities and communications.

Despite a strong decrease in media coverage the past decade (in the 80s and 90s she interacted on video with William Shatner and Robin Williams, idly appeared in the New York Times—“Koko, a gorilla that researchers say has a vocabulary estimated at more than 500 sign-language words, cried after it was told that its pet cat had been killed, officials said Tuesday”—and was the subject of a full-length documentary, at least 3 books, and a TV/VHS special narrated by Martin Sheen) Koko is probably still the most famous nonfictional gorilla to have ever existed or that will ever exist.


Founded in 1976 by Dr. Penny Patterson—who seems to have remained in daily contact with Koko since then, or earlier—to “save gorillas from extinction, and inspire our children to create a sustainable future for all great apes,” The Gorilla Foundation is a tightly-knit, devoted, focused, tonally confident non-profit 501c3 corporation with the ability to easily release or renew a variety of long-term, pre-internet, non-culture-specific memes via 6-15 reoccurring characters, all connecting back to Koko who exists, one could say, as the vessel that without which The Gorilla Foundation could not fully express itself, but with which The Gorilla Foundation is able to comfortably—almost transcendently—express itself continuously.

The Gorilla Foundation’s medium-large cast of characters (Smoky “the cat,” Flower “the dog,” Ron Cohn “the principle photographer,” Ndume “the Silverback Gorilla,” “Caregiver” Jana, “Caregiver” Andrea, etc.) has a mostly name-and-one-image-based, almost “flat”—or “invented”—affect (in service of eliciting intimacy and amusement, I feel, rather than to convey good/evil) that, to me, is reminiscent of a 16-bit RPG, maybe specifically Final Fantasy III. One seems to almost “play” Koko’s internet presence, “exploring” it calmly, “saving” one’s game when finished, returning hours/days/months later to continue from the previous session, except here the game is unwinnable (but can be multiplayer, I feel, based on having Gmail chatted with a friend as we both navigated Koko’s internet presence, sending each other Koko-related links).

Attractively, and interestingly, to me, The Gorilla Foundation—despite being a non-profit with a stated, concrete mission—is not afraid to openly convey information that is tonally vague, “politically incorrect,” or potentially irrelevant/detrimental to its mission, for example:

  1. A photo (first on page six) from KokoPix displays a Ron Cohn, in the near-background, looking down with an earnestly depressed facial expression as Koko looks at the camera with an extremely-wide-open mouth. Ron Cohn’s expression is not addressed in the photo’s caption or title (“Expressive Koko!”) because, I feel, The Gorilla Foundation, in not acknowledging or somehow otherwise mollifying Ron Cohn’s depressed facial expression, is conveying that it is comfortable with the reality that not everyone, even in a non-profit, can display happy or excited facial expressions all the time.
  2. Another photo (see above-right) is of Koko’s naked backside, as she seems to be moving away from the camera, toward something in the distance, and is titled “Koko’s rear” in what seems to be an openly “deadpan” manner, reminiscent of a college student taking a photo of their drunken, naked, unknowing roommate and titling the photo “Frank’s Ass” and putting it on Facebook or their blog.
  3. Koko’s WishList contains 2 philosophical/spiritual DVDs that are overtly, almost comically, for humans on the staff of The Gorilla Foundation—

    —and which reference sentiments conventionally nonexistent in non-profit organizations (“emptiness,” unhappiness), as they “seem depressing,” but here are presented consecutively, without qualification or explanation, almost as if in opposition to conventionally “positive” DVDs that could’ve been listed there instead.

The Gorilla Foundation, like a tree or cloud or other thing from nature, seems to mostly present itself only to an ideal, abstract, fully internalized audience—one that does not question sincerity or intent, that does not require justification or meaning, that would rather The Gorilla Foundation not pause (to defend itself, to allow others time to comprehend it) but to continue always with what it’s already doing. In this manner The Gorilla Foundation exists more in actualization of itself than in opposition to something else, which implies, to some degree, that it doesn’t earnestly believe it—or anything—“needs” to exist or is “right” or “wrong,” rather that its “mission” is a temporary concept, created by itself to directionalize itself, that without which [The Gorilla Foundation] wouldn’t exist.