Thought Catalog

Koko, The “Talking” Gorilla

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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 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.”

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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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