Thought Catalog

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.

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    • christopher lynsey

      Entranced while reading this.

      • tao

        nice new pic

    • aaron nicholas

      following koko on twitter now

    • Brian McElmurry

      Damn, this was so fascinating. I liked the existentialist parts, like the end of pg 4, which kind of seemed like a possible reflection of yourself. The photos at the end made me tear up a little bit. And made me think back to his 'neutral facial expression', you wrote about. I'm happy now. So Cute!

      • tao


        i'm glad you felt it was fascinating

        i like the photo of koko going into the car

    • megan boyle

      nice, good job

      “…Maui occurred in 1993 …simulating 'the tropical rain forests of Africa' … 'vital step' toward saving gorillas from extinction … The first concrete action occurred in 2000 … In 2007 the project was described as 'going through a redesign phase to take advantage of advances,' which most people would probably interpret as meaning 'it will never be finished, it seems,' as there will likely not ever be a time when advances are not available to 'take advantage' of in another 'redesign phase.' No concrete progress has been made since the 2007 announcement…”

      seems kafka-esque


      • tao


        edited out of the article was the term 'post-kafkaesque'

    • mario

      seems really emotional. used to have the book “koko's kitten,” might still have it.

    • Aaron

      This is an amazing piece of work. Reminds me of David Foster Wallace's essays. Not in terms of style, but in terms of the close examination of seemingly mundane subjects, which are usually taken for granted, that reveals startling insights. Also exhibits the offhand, almost sub rosa wit that DFW so often employed. See, e.g. “Consider the Lobster.”

      I think it is of that caliber, or close to it.

      • tao


        thank you for the comment aaron

    • stephen

      I liked this, Tao. I like how you use Koko as means for discussing philosophical concepts. I think this essay–like your Murakami essay and others of your works–demonstrates your very impressive capacity for thoroughly precise usage of language, notably to describe complicatedly abstract, individual thoughts. The drift or ken of these thoughts sometimes feels, oddly, both familiar and unfamiliar to me, simultaneously, as if something essentially “planted” in me by another feels instead “plucked.”

      • tao


        i'm glad you liked it


        planted vs. plucked…damn

    • kdub

      i liked this very much. used to have a “life-sized” stuffed koko.

      (she'll ruin her “brand” if she tears off someone's face, but maybe that's something only male chimps do)

    • Puzzled

      WTF is this about??? Sounds like a lot of clap trap.

      • Aaron

        It's weird that there is a comment like this on just about every internet article… oh forget it.

    • Jordan


      i enjoyed reading this 'tao tao'

      thought 'god damn you,' re myself, re 'always seeming to want to “make up” “weird,” “cutesie” nicknames for people'…

      honestly don't know… idk….

      good job writing this

      • tao


        tao tao

        seems like 'tao tao lin lin' would be, like, [end thought]

    • Chris

      Did you happen to notice that there is no proof anywhere of Patterson's claims, swallowed whole by the general public and institutions as respectable as National Geographic Magazine? Have you seen what her collegues have said about the claims? What about serious linguists? If Koko could carry on a conversation or even put together a coherent sentence that didn't in context just look like something a random word generator would eventually produce, don't you think she'd be on all the chat shows by now? Or at least have a coherent thought you could find anywhere on the Internet? Have you read the AOL “live chat” transcript? How about a little healthy skepticism, please? What would be wrong with a little healthy skeptism? If Koko could use language, where is the proof: a video on You Tube that would satisfy even a sympathetic skeptic who knows ASL, a transcript of her doing anything that couldn't just be simply explained as her making gestures to get Penny to give her a treat? Did you notice that she isn't interested in “talking”, she just wants food? African Gray Parrots, Prarie Dogs, even Honeybees have indisputable “language” if you have a low but still reasonable threshold for the gray area between true language and any form of communication, but with Koko all your research will find is more and sillier claims and repetition of claims originating with Patterson. And Patterson feels no need to answer her peers but prefers to talk to wide-eyed true belivers. This is science? Koko (or rather, Penny and the Foundation) would be raking in the bucks hand over fist if Koko could communicate using language. Her failure to do so is not due to some strange phenomenon of brand placement but rather consistant with her not understanding language at all.

      • tao

        i think it fits her brand 'even more' if she can't 'really' talk, seems even funnier and more 'cute'

      • ALisa Odincova

        how about singer works about animals and speciesisme. just because we dont understand the way other animals communicate, does not mean they cant feel or learn to feel  the way we do. why don’t u turn ur skepticism on the way u think. i say every animal can feel emotions and pain some guy spend 25 years proving plants can feel. language and writing is something we made up, if we could send signals like dolphins our communication would be totally different, not a fact you would understand the human if he tryed to communicate with u same way as dolphins do, and yet it wouldn’t prove that him not having  not having normal language makes him less human that you r. i seen the videos with koko, she does communicate and feel. most humans r rascist when it comes to animals, would u type everywhere that ur food can feel and love? it would then stop lots of animal based businesses humanity do. heres ur main reason why its so hush hush. Patterson is not the only one voicing and studying those who should be equal with us in rights

      • ALisa Odincova

        did u knew that cats known to mimic human speech,  and can communicate via 200 different sounds ? did u ever notice that? regarding koko there was several documentaries, including bbc. what humans do with gorilaes, kill em for paws to make souvenirs. what humans do with dolphins? fish em for food and kill for fun on some island in danemark. what humans do with cats and other pets? i think i just fcking hate humans

    • Mallory Whitten

      thinking of rap songs
      ape shit

    • tommmmm

      i remember i really wanted to be a primatologist growing up. thanks for this.

    • Michael Koh

      this is great

    • Danny

      Agree with Aaronwb, reminds me of Wallace. But still “you”. Nice.

    • Mr Tumpkins

      Oh please, Koko is SO fake.

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