Koko, The “Talking” Gorilla


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 koko.org 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.

An overview of Koko’s brand


The Gorilla Foundation’s chief meme-form—

[specific gorilla] [verb associated with humans] [item associated with humans]

—does not exclusive employ Koko (sometimes it has employed Ndume, Koko’s current “mate,” or Michael, who died in 2000 from heart failure and was described in his obituary as Koko’s best friend) but it’s when Koko, with her uniquely alienated situation and strong “personal brand,” is the conduit that the low-level memes transcend the emotional void of meme-hood and become more like “things of ‘art'” which, though lacking the viral potential of memes, are perhaps more useful as sustainable palliatives—rather than temporary distractions—for existential issues such as limited-time, death, confusion and therefore more memorable and lasting.

The Gorilla Foundation has generated a variety of memes—

  • watching romantic comedies
  • having “favorite” movies (Pretty WomanMaid in ManhattanBig)
  • cradling tiny kittens, baby human dolls, or “troll” dolls
  • flossing
  • finger-painting
  • reading fan mail
  • getting her back scratched by a grinning Dr. Penny Patterson
  • photographing herself
  • celebrating birthdays and holidays with “feasts” or costumes
  • climbing things in her outdoor compound
  • sitting on grass in sunlight in a lightly dazed, cat-like manner
  • eating chia seeds, acacia shoots, red roses
  • “daintily” peeling and eating oranges
  • strategizing on how to gain “enrichments” (toy-like items or food items placed in areas out of reach without the use of creativity)
  • interacting with celebrities in situations where the celebrities seem categorically more interested in her than she in them
  • laying amongst toys for adolescent humans in the manner of a “passed-out drunk” laying amongst their recent, personal wreckage
  • staring at “to do lists” posted on walls while holding a pen in a professional manner.

—that with Koko as their node have aggregately, at some point, 20-40 years ago, enacted a uniquely class-spanning, difficult-to-earnestly-shit-talk, subtly unzany brand of extreme zaniness that seems to have come into existence gradually, over decades, independent of chance-like associations with short-term cultural obsessions and without logos or catch-phrases or non-factual self-description (the front page of koko.org contains no adjectives re Koko), almost as an “accidental” side-effect of simply satisfying Koko’s existential and evolutionary needs in a publicly documented manner.

One can discern the accidental nature of Koko’s brand by looking at photographs of her and feeling unable to easily identity the time period or cultural climate (unlike the brands of, say, David Bowie or even Woody Allen, whose relatively slight cultural-inflection, in terms of aesthetic, is still enough to place a photo him in a decade). Like the closed system of the universe—self-defining, defaultedly expanding, toneless-by-way-of-encompassing-all-tones—Koko’s brand, because it overlaps completely (or near completely) with her existence, will never seem to change yet is not, by definition, stagnant.

The result is that Koko can do or “say” anything and it will strengthen her brand. She will never seem “out of character” because she has displayed a range of tones and behaviors comprehensive and wide-ranging enough that she has acquired, among other things, the bankruptcy-proof qualities of the major corporation that has expanded to so many sectors that it’s no longer identifiable with one product and is now, transcendently, outside the success-failure spectrum.

Curiously, engaging in violent or other directly immoral—defined here as “that which, within a context, and in comparison to something else within the same context, increases the pain and suffering of those within the context”—behavior seems to be the only way Koko could ruin her brand to any degree. In a universe where the only innate direction, arguably, of conscious beings is to “avoid pain”/“seek pleasure,” the maintenance of Koko’s brand is at once evolutionarily, existentially, and morally/politically appealing in a way that one could imagine earnestly saying things about how if Sartre were alive today he might consider Koko, not Che, to be “the most complete [entity] of our age.”



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 koko.org 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 koko.org 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.”

Koko’s goals and future


Koko’s top 3 wishes in life, repeatedly mentioned throughout her internet presence, in most press releases, and in subscription materials (I donated $25 to The Gorilla Foundation at some point and now regularly receive Koko-related things in the mail) are:

#1 “A gorilla baby to love”
#2 “Move to the new Maui Ape Preserve”
#3 “People to be ‘polite’ to gorillas”

Though Koko herself lists it as second, moving to Maui is presented, aggregately, I feel, as definitely the main goal of The Gorilla Foundation.

The first movement toward moving to Maui occurred in 1993 when The Gorilla Foundation signed a 65-year lease to use 70 acres of Maui Land & Pineapple Co. land as a gorilla preserve, according to an article in The Maui News. The purpose of the preserve would be to establish a home simulating “the tropical rain forests of Africa” and, in extension, be a “vital step” toward saving gorillas from extinction.

The first concrete action occurred in 2000, when the foundation obtained the necessary permits and constructed a small building, an enclosure, a reservoir.

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, according to the “Maui Ape Preserve” section of koko.org, which says that $2 million has been raised.

According to Dr. Penny Patterson “All of Koko’s wishes are within reach. Koko could potentially still conceive or adopt a baby gorilla, and members of her species are known to live well into their fifties. In addition, work is underway to make the Maui Preserve a reality that we believe will play an important role in furthering the survival of the species. We feel there is a lot to celebrate. Happy birthday, Koko, good friend and ‘fine gorilla person’!”


According to National Geographic the average lifespan of a Western Lowland Gorilla is 35 years. Though lifespan increases in captivity, Koko, who turns 40 on July 4 of this year, is still morbidly elderly, and with only 608 followers on Twitter, art that sells for  $150-$350, a brand too complex, at this point, for journalists to successfully pitch to their editors, and a global network of increasingly powerful media corporations focused on publicizing natural disasters, political gaffes, religious fervor, and [other conflict-based memes] it seems unlikely that Koko will achieve any of her life wishes (the third, for humans to “be polite” to gorillas, seems less a wish than either an idle yearning or a weakly inflected joke).

This conventionally depressing aspect of Koko’s life is featured prominently in press releases and on koko.org, perhaps because The Gorilla Foundation, through readings of Buddhist and philosophical texts and as a natural expression of its unafraid brand, feels no sadness about it, due to viewing goals as relevant only for the direction they provide in the otherwise directionless period between birth and death, regardless of achievement. In this worldview existence itself is the only “accomplishment,” after which there is only a half-sarcastically directionalized “play,” which, if there is any, may be the core sentiment that powers a brand more focused on amusing itself than on qualifying itself upward within a culturally, societally, or politically defined hierarchy.

TWITTER ACCOUNT (@kokotweets)

The Gorilla Foundation’s first Tweet (bit.ly link to a CNN Europe article about a gorilla named Jookie) happened 29 AUG 2009. As of 24 FEB 2011 The Gorilla Foundation’s Twitter account has 608 followers (the low number seems baffling to a degree that it seems somehow deliberate), 218 Tweets, and is on 48 lists.

Whomever controls Koko’s Twitter account seems impressively consistent, given the precariously complicated tone that has been employed via medium-frequent “scare quote” usage, a naïf-like “deadpan,” a consistently unpredictable usage of exclamation marks, an at-times grim-seeming detachment. There are no stock phrases, I think, and punctuation and formatting seem consistent—except some periods, arguably. The sentences are direct, concrete, and seem to trust that the reader will “get it.”

A Tweet with an exclamation mark seems unexpectedly—almost bleakly—exhilarating:

A Tweet without an exclamation mark seems ominous to grim:

Koko “purrs” in almost every Tweet she’s in:

Some Tweets are short, direct:

The first sentence of this Tweet provides context skillfully, I feel:

Some Tweets, in their focus on concrete description and avoidance of idiom, seem highly open to interpretation. These Tweets, for example, could be viewed as “disapproving”:

Some Tweets convey potentially complicated (for 140 characters) anecdotes deftly, with clarity and concision:

Selected photos from KokoPix, The Gorilla Foundation’s “photo blog.”


KokoPix is a “photo blog” created 01 JAN 2000. As of 24 FEB 2011 there are 1363 photos—each with a title, a date, a photographer credit, a caption (click photos for their captions).

Some photos are of other animals that live on the indoor/outdoor compound:

Some photos seem direct yet vague:

Some photos are of inanimate objects or nature:

Some captions seem strongly sarcastic (if read without knowledge of Koko’s brand):

Koko is credited as photographer in some photos:

Many photos are creatively playful:

Dr. Penny Patterson (b. 1947) and Koko (b. 1971):

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