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“Koko”, The Gorilla who talks to People

If any subject is capable of capturing the hearts of individuals in one moment, animal interaction with humans would surely feature highly on this list. Undeniably animals possess the ability to communicate with one another and manifest signs of an emotional foundation. Various speculations have been made regarding what is the highest dimension of the intelligence of animals; an example being that for some species “ability” and “capacity to adapt”  (as opposed to learning, reasoning and application of the higher mind) could potentially equate with that of a five year old child.[1]

“Koko: The Gorilla who talks to People” (bbc 2, Wednesday 15th June) explored the story of a gorilla who was taught to use sign language by a university graduate. Clearly, that a gorilla was able to acquire this mode of communication is startling considering that even for humans such a task would not necessarily be easy.

picture from www.dailymail.co.uk

To provide further background on the programme, “Project Koko”, of which psychology phd student Penny Patterson was part, was established to discover if a gorilla could learn sign language and as a way of examining its cognitive abilities at the same time.[2] “Koko” was born in San Francisco zoo and was effectively adopted by Penny in order to carry out the project’s aims.

In the film, Koko celebrated her 44th birthday. Serving as ambassadors of the gorilla foundation and the project, Koko’s “celebrity friends” have included Robin Williams and Betty White who, along with others made a personal connection with Koko. She herself has become a brand, replicated in children’s books and toys.


picture from www.pinterest.com

The programme raised two thought provoking issues. The first is the question of whether, in light of our understanding that the lines surrounding the extent of intelligence in animals are blurred, can we be sure that Koko could comprehend what she was communicating or was she simply using repeated “words”?

Second is the issue of animals growing up outside of their natural habitat. Undoubtedly this is a two sided debate with valid reasons on either side and the animal’s lack of communicative ability poignantly at the forefront. Given that animals possess capacity for emotion and the understanding that Koko knew she was not human despite growing up with them from birth, we are led to ponder whether animals generally might have some preference as to where they would like to live.


picture from www.koko.org

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About Judith Brown

I did an MA in English literature at Kings College London where I wrote a dissertation on representations of characters with learning difficulties. I am very imaginative and write on a range of topics. I like to read, listen to music and draw.

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