Thought Catalog
February 24, 2011

Koko, The “Talking” Gorilla

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One assumes, in most moments of one’s life, that Koko’s specific brand of “deadpan”—resulting mostly from the hundreds of photos/videos of her displaying neutral facial expressions in contexts that, as a gorilla, can seem troubling to “grim”—is accidental, that she doesn’t comport herself in service of conveying, for comic effect, that her experience of concrete reality is one of low-level, self-aware, not unenjoyable exasperation.

But in certain moments of one’s life, usually while feeling relatively content, calmly showering after waking at 5PM, the suspicion that Koko’s existence is absolutely “accomplished with a careful pretense of calm detachment, displaying little to no emotional or person involvement,” or “deadpan,” seems to gain prominence, moving in a self-powered manner toward the factual, like a neuroticism becoming an insanity, though mostly in a controlled manner, to amuse oneself.

As with cats or hamsters, especially those viewed on computer screens, one feels reluctant to fully inhabit the somewhat bleak worldview that would 100% deny Koko’s ability to discern and manipulate tone. It’s possible, one sometimes thinks while idly perusing at 4AM, that Koko’s acceptance of her forthcoming nonexistence is what causes her facial expression to “relax” in times of stress, counter—especially for gorillas, maybe—to conventional “flight-or-flight” behavior.

The Gorilla Foundation seems to encourage this interpretation of Koko (see photo of Koko staring out a window), increasing the emotional depth of her brand by promoting that thoughts like “Koko endures situations calmly by allowing the sensation that ‘it’s okay to die’ to neutralize most of her negative emotions” be interpreted without complete sarcasm, but with some identification and, if possible, emotional satisfaction.


Koko’s specific “neutral facial expression” is characterized by “beady” eyes, a “dead gaze,” and her “mountainous head,” of which only the mouth, it seems, can discernibly move. In the rare photo where Koko appears to have explicitly chosen not to display a neutral facial expression she seems almost belligerently sarcastic and is ultimately completely unsuccessful—in a manner, however, that actually seems deliberately unsuccessful and therefore completely successful, in that the viewer actually believes, even more, now, that Koko’s neutral demeanor is inherent, ever-emanating, uncontrollable.

In one of the aforementioned photos (first on page six) Koko’s mouth is open “extremely wide” in the style of a energetic, confident, young woman at a college football game who has had six beers, but every other area of Koko’s face seem firmly neutral, to a degree that “neutral” still seems to be the most-accurate description of her facial expression (one discerns simply that the mouth is open extremely wide in a temporary, meaningless manner that can be completely ignored).

Imagining a confused facial expression at the front of Koko’s head is like imagining an apple by focusing exclusively on an image of an orange. Imagine Koko alone somewhere, hugging herself and crying. Now focus on her facial expression. Does it seem neutral? Even with strong contextual influence it seems like I cannot—without actuating a grotesquely unreal image or villainizing as evil and therefore angry when neutral—imagine Koko with anything but a neutral facial expression, even if she were to display a fully angry or depressed facial expression.

When one encounters a paradox like this (and one does often, with Koko’s brand) one can ignore it by thinking about other things or one can force it to “make sense” by distorting it—or one can receive the paradox in entirety, not assimilating it, but assimilate ourselves to it, and, by doing so, increase the metaphysical space in which phenomenon can be utilized and experienced.


The size and shape of Koko’s head—larger and more protruding than that of other gorillas I’ve seen on the internet—allows Koko to effortlessly and continuously convey a seasonal, archetypal, cosmic neutrality. One views Koko’s head and automatically intuits, to some degree, the indifference of the universe (via subconscious associations: “mountainous,” mountain, trees, leaves, seasons, Earth’s movement around the sun, stars’ movements around black holes).

Perceiving the enormous, pineapple-y—or boulder-like, depending on angle—non-face portions of Koko’s head one also experiences a relenting of “wanting/needing to know,” feeling calmly vulnerable to the mystery of what’s inside the part of Koko’s head that extends above the “original” top of her head. With some effort one discerns only “ridiculous” explanations—that it’s actually hair that all gorillas condense with their hands into a bone-like matter for defense purposes, that gorillas’ brains are cone-shaped, that there’s a single muscle inside that can suddenly flex to deceptively power an arm or leg for predatory purposes.


1. Koko seems both borderline retarded and to be a skilled genius, in that her IQ has been tested as between 70 and 90 on a human scale (on which below 70 is retarded) and she is more fluent in English and ASL than any other gorilla in history. She seems both “stupid” and highly intelligent in a manner that has no analogy in humans, even considering “idiot savants,” in part because, as a gorilla, she already seems, via stereotype, “stupid” (a dolphin with an IQ between 70 and 90 would, to most people, seem fully intelligent).

2. Koko seems only vaguely female, in that the concept of her, in part because she’s of a species that is arguably male-inflected, creates a space in one’s cognition that, in my case, was filled with the previously meaningless phrase “exact gender.” I seemed to think “what is Koko’s exact gender” sometimes while idly perusing which has a subtle effect, in its lack of gender cues (no pink/blue clothing or yearning for a male gorilla or application of lipstick or jewelry or motherly behavior toward an infant gorilla), of further obscuring Koko’s gender by making her seem like a small child rather than a grown woman. It’s not uncommon to realize, after amounts of time ranging from minutes to weeks, that one has been thinking of Koko as a boy or man for that period of time.


Koko is in daily contact with one gorilla and probably 5-15 cats/dogs/humans. She was born in a zoo, removed from her biological mother, and raised by a human whom she refers to as her mother, despite, according to The Gorilla Foundation, knowing the species difference. She was taught to communicate using a different species’ language. Her featured, nearly life-long, as-yet unachieved goal is to move to a compound in Maui that would better simulate her natural environment—equatorial Africa, where she has never been—and most of her life is now documented on the internet, likely without her knowledge or comprehension.

Yet—like a child in a fantasy who escapes a mundane or terrible reality into a world of elves, trolls, wizards—Koko’s situation seems somehow magical, ever-interesting, exciting, almost the opposite of alienating.


Imagine Koko watching a reporter cover a hurricane from inside the hurricane, navigating Facebook, or looking at a “grainy” photograph of a big-headed extraterrestrial—or doing anything where she isn’t moving her body, limbs, or head—and you’ll discern, weakly then with sudden clarity, that when Koko is engaged in a stationary activity the situation will seem firmly “slapstick,” a genre of humor based completely on violent, full-bodied movement.


Koko was born as Hanabi-Ko (Japanese for “fireworks child”) but quickly became known as “Koko,” taking on a form that has proven successful across cultures and time-periods, from corporations (Bebe) to people (Bebe Zeva) to pet names (Bobo) to authors (Kobo Abe) to restaurants (Koko!) to pop stars (Lady Gaga). One suspects her brand would be cripplingly less compelling, that she would be currently “homeless” or dead after being purchased by a zoo deep in Russia, if her name were Susan or, like her fellow gorillas, Ndume or Michael, names which seem to almost proudly lack the moxie, fearlessness, and avant-nature of a Kobo or Koko or even Coco.


Despite coverage from PBS, National Geographic, New York Times, The Onion, multiple YouTube videos with over 200,000 views, being featured in a Robin Williams’ stand-up routine, being the inspiration for Amy in Michael Crichton’s Congo, and being sponsored by Sting, the aforementioned Robin Williams, Gloria Steinam, and others, massive mainstream success, to the point of financial security, seems to have eluded Koko apparently, as one of her 3 goals in life, since at least 1993, has been to move to a habitat in Maui, but only half the funds have been raised in 17 years.

Perhaps Koko is not able to achieve the success of a Madonna or a Michael Jordan because her brand is inherently indescribable within the conventional journalistic technique (“non-boring” sentence followed by a number of other sentences “proving” the first sentence), due in part to her multidisciplinary nature and that she lacks the kind of intense, strategic focus that can manifest as unself-aware self-parody, which seems required for extreme media coverage.

It may be simply that because she’s a gorilla there’s a “cap” to her level of fame or marketability, in that humans cannot fully identify with gorillas. Often, it seems, one feels interested in Koko for days or weeks, while in a certain mood, then suddenly doesn’t feel anything for Koko—feels “nothing” for Koko. Media, potential sponsors, and Hollywood may be aware of this and deliberately stay away from Koko, to a degree that financial problems have become a part of her brand.


The following 4 perspectives of Koko show that, though idiosyncratic and distinct, she is also a kind of “blank slate,” able to be successfully conveyed in a variety of manners.

1. A Wikipedia search of Koko yields 6 subjects under “People, animals, and plants.” The Koko of this essay, listed fourth—above “Emperor K?k?, the 58th emperor of Japan”—is described as “Koko (gorilla), an ape who underwent training in Gorilla Sign Language.” With its focus on information that seems factual even without attribution, Wikipedia’s initial description presents Koko as insignificant, common, vaguely nonexistent. One imagines that thousands of gorillas have undergone training in Gorilla Sign Language, and that it’s a boring, repetitive, mostly unsuccessfully program endured by graduate students for bureaucratic reasons related to degree completion.

2. A PBS article, pressured, one assumes, to preemptively justify each subject it focuses on, begins with “Koko the gorilla has been featured in THE NEW YORK TIMES, her face has graced the covers of prestigious magazines, 3 books have been written about her, and scientists hang on her every word,” a lede that would seem sarcastic in most other contexts (it seems unlikely that a non-profit organization like PBS would be sarcastic in this manner) presents Koko as iconically powerful, extremely famous, profoundly interesting, almost God-like (“scientists hang on her every word”).

3. When interviewed in 2009 by the BBC about his visit with Koko William Shatner said “I [was] frightened to death” then relates how he approached Koko repeatedly saying “I love you” and that Koko responded by staring with “brown eyes” before “cupping,” or holding Shatner’s genitals from below.

4. In Robin Williams’ stand-up routine he relates how Koko wanted him to “lift his shirt,” which he did, after which “[Koko] reached out and grabbed both my nipples […] She grabs me by the hand and starts to take me to the back.” The YouTube video refers to the gorilla as “Coco the Silverback Gorilla,” however, possibly to denote that the routine, though autobiographical, is fictional—in service of comedy not truth.


This period in Koko’s life, documented on her Wikipedia page between “Koko’s cats” and “Popular Culture,” as “Sexual harassment,” was covered by San Francisco Chronicle with an article titled “Gorilla Foundation rocked by breast display lawsuit” featuring the tagline “Former employees say they were told to expose chests.” The article cites 2 employees who claimed to have been fired because they “refused to expose [their] breast[s] to perform acts of bestiality with one of the gorillas” and quotes Dr. Penny Patterson as allegedly saying “Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples.”

The article says:

The subject of books, videos and documentary films, the hairy linguist participated in what was called the first interspecies chat on the Internet in 1998, attracting more than 8,000 AOL users.

San Francisco attorney Stephen Sommers, who is representing Alperin and Keller, has a transcript of that chat.

“There’s a history with this nipple thing,” he said, leafing through the transcript and pointing out the word “nipple” — which he’d highlighted in pink — each time it appeared.

The history, as such, might date back to Koko’s mother, who reportedly did not have enough breast milk to feed her.

As of November 21, 2005 all claims of sexual harassment have been dropped because “the foundation and the parties involved reached a settlement.”

The Wikipedia section ends with a sentence that uses the phrase “Koko’s lawyer” in a manner that could be used in creative writing classes to explain Hemingway’s “iceberg” theory of writing: “Jody Weiner, Koko’s lawyer, writes about Koko and sexual harassment in the book Kinship With Animals.”