Koko the gorilla, who learned sign language, dies at 46

This undated handout photograph obtained June 21, 2018 courtesy of The Gorilla Foundation shows the gorilla Koko and her lifelong teacher and friend Dr. Penny Patterson. (AFP)
Updated 22 June 2018
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Koko the gorilla, who learned sign language, dies at 46

  • Koko was the not the first animal to learn sign language and communicate, but through books and media appearances she became the most famous
  • Koko the individual was supersmart, like all the apes, and also sensitive, something not everyone expected from a ‘king kong’ type animal that movies depict as dangerous and formidable

SAN FRANCISCO: Koko the gorilla, whose remarkable sign-language ability and motherly attachment to pet cats helped change the world’s views about the intelligence of animals and their capacity for empathy, has died at 46.
Koko was taught sign language from an early age as a scientific test subject and eventually learned more than 1,000 words, a vocabulary similar to that of a human toddler.
She became a celebrity who played with the likes of William Shatner, Sting, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robin Williams and Mr. Rogers. At her home preserve, where she was treated like a queen, she ran around with Williams’ eyeglasses and unzipped Rogers’ famous cardigan sweater.
In so doing, Koko showed the American public that a giant ape didn’t have to be scary but wanted to be tickled and hugged.
The Gorilla Foundation said the 280-pound (127-kilogram) western lowland gorilla died in her sleep at the foundation’s preserve in California’s Santa Cruz mountains Tuesday.
Koko was the not the first animal to learn sign language and communicate, but through books and media appearances she became the most famous. Yet there was debate in the scientific community about how deep and human-like her conversations were.
Koko appeared in many documentaries, including a 2015 PBS one, and twice in National Geographic. The gorilla’s 1978 National Geographic cover featured a photo that the animal had taken of herself in a mirror.
“Koko the individual was supersmart, like all the apes, and also sensitive, something not everyone expected from a ‘king kong’ type animal that movies depict as dangerous and formidable,” Emory University primate researcher Frans de Waal said in an email Thursday.
“It changed the image of apes, and gorillas in particular, for the better, such as through the children’s book ‘Koko’s Kitten’ that may young people have grown up with. To view apes as nice and caring was new to the public and a big improvement.”
Koko watched movies and television, with her handlers saying her favorite book was “The Three Little Kittens,” her favorite movies included the Eddie Murphy version of “Doctor Doolittle” and “Free Willy,” and her favorite TV show was “Wild Kingdom.”
For her 25th birthday, she asked for and received a box of rubber snakes. In 1996, she even asked to be a mother. Despite attempts by her keepers to introduce male partners, Koko never became a mother. Instead, she had a series of kittens as pets.
The first was named All Ball, a gray and white tail-less kitten, given to Koko for her birthday in 1984. Other cats followed after All Ball’s death, but researchers reported that the gorilla kept “mourning” the original cat years later.
Koko’s real name was Hanabi-Ko, Japanese for fireworks child. She was born July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo.
Francine Patterson was working on her doctoral dissertation on the linguistic capabilities of gorillas and in 1972 started to teach Koko sign language. Patterson and biologist Ronald Cohn moved Koko to their newly established preserve in 1974 and kept teaching and studying her, adding a male gorilla in 1979.
In 2004, Koko used American Sign Language to communicate that her mouth hurt and used a pain scale of 1 to 10 to show how badly it hurt.
“Koko represents what language may have been 5 million years ago for people,” Cohn said in 1996. “That’s the time that gorillas and humans separated in evolution.”
Other scientists, such as Herbert Terrace at Columbia University, who raised and taught sign language to a primate named Nim Chimpksy (a play on the name of the linguist Noam Chomsky), argued in scientific and popular literature that most of Koko’s conversations and those of other primates were “not spontaneous but solicited by questions from her teachers and companions.”
“Scientists have often complained about possible overinterpretation of Koko’s sign language utterances and the lack of proper documentation of what she has said when and how,” deWaal said in an email, adding that “coaching and interpretation by the people around her” may have altered her messages at times.
But the science, deWaal said, was “irrelevant to Koko’s pop-image. ... Koko’s passing is the end of an era, and a genuine loss.”
Koko frequently asked to see people’s nipples, a habit that led to controversy more than a dozen years ago, when two former caretakers said they were fired for refusing to bare their breasts to the gorilla. The women settled with the foundation in 2005.
Video shows Koko grabbing for Williams’ chest area and Shatner’s groin.
Williams, another San Francisco Bay area legend, met Koko in 2001 and called it a “mind-altering experience.” The two held hands and tickled each other in a widely shared video.
“We shared something extraordinary: Laughter,” he said. He called it “awesome and unforgettable.” Williams killed himself in 2014.
Patterson later said she didn’t plan on telling Koko about Williams’ death, but the gorilla overheard conversation and then later “mourned” the actor by going silent and sullen.
Koko knew about death, primary researcher Patterson said in 2015, relaying in The Atlantic a conversation Koko had with another caretaker:
“The caregiver showed Koko a skeleton and asked, ‘Is this alive or dead?’ Koko signed, ‘Dead, draped.’ ‘Draped’ means ‘covered up.’ Then the caregiver asked, ‘Where do animals go when they die?’ Koko said, ‘A comfortable hole.’ Then she gave a kiss goodbye.”


If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’

Updated 22 February 2019
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If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’

  • “This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” according to a PR expert
  • After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services

LOS ANGELES: Jussie Smollett is enmeshed in weekly drama on the set of “Empire,” the Fox TV series that gave the actor a breakout role and the fame to advance his social activism.
But a scene that played out on a dark Chicago street in January has left Smollett facing felony charges and raised the possibility that “Empire” could mark the pinnacle of the 38-year-old’s career.
Smollett, who is black and gay, told police he was the victim of a hate crime committed by men who threw liquid in his face, yelled racist, anti-gay slurs and looped a noose around his neck. After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged Wednesday with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services.
Even in an industry in which bad or erratic behavior is expected, insiders and observers are stunned by what authorities allege was fakery intended in part to get Smollett publicity and a raise.
“This is incredible. No one does this,” said Garth Ancier, a veteran network executive and a co-founder of the Fox network. If more money was his goal, that’s what agents and negotiations are for, he said, calling the alleged hoax “beyond the pale.”
“It’s too bad that such a talented guy threw all that away,” Ancier said, adding he didn’t see how he could be kept on “Empire.”
Producers appeared to be doing that for now, with Smollett traveling directly after being released from jail on bond Thursday to the “Empire” set. There are two episodes left to make of the 18 airing this season, the fifth year for the series starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as hip-hop moguls Cookie and Lucious Lyon.
Replacing Smollett at this point would be problematic. Writing his character, one of three Lyon sons, out of future seasons would be less so.
Smollett’s legal team released a statement late Thursday calling Chicago police’s version of events “an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system.
“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing,” the statement said.
After Smollett was charged, TNT’s celebrity battle-rap series “Drop the Mic” pulled an upcoming episode with him “in the interest of not being exploitative of an incredibly sensitive situation,” the network said in a statement.
The Fox studio that makes “Empire” publicly stood behind Smollett when he first reported the attack and as skepticism about it arose. But it declined comment Thursday about what happens next as he fights charges of filing a false police report.
Experts in the field of crisis management were pessimistic. The online mockery Smollett is taking is unlikely to stop, and it could hinder any attempt to re-emerge, said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of the public relations firm Dezenhall Resources.
“The thing it’s really hard to come back from is ridicule,” Dezenhall said. “It can be easier to come back from something just bad. In our culture the whiff of something dangerous has a certain street cred. But here we’re talking about a combination of malevolence and ridiculousness.”
Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications, offered a similar take.
“This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” said Gillott, citing instances ranging from Kevin Spacey’s firing from “House of Cards” for alleged sexual misconduct to Megyn Kelly’s “Today” exit after she defended blackface costumes.
What Smollett is alleged to have done isn’t analogous to either one — or to just about anything that’s happened with a celebrity or prominent person in recent memory or in news files.
There have been stunts, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s role in a so-called documentary, “I’m Still Here,” directed by actor Casey Affleck and supposedly about Phoenix’s career as a rapper in decline. The film’s release came with public apologies and lawsuits attached.
Others have exaggerated their exploits, such as TV journalist Brian Williams’ account of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket in the 2003 Iraq invasion or Hillary Clinton’s 2008 account of landing under sniper fire during a 1990s trip as first lady.
But Smollett, instead of creating an image-burnishing fiction, positioned himself as a victim and the deserving centerpiece for outrage directed at his attackers. He said those who questioned him made him feel “victimized.”
The allegation that Smollett did it for money could be seen as both a betrayal and baffling, given what he earns: more than $1.8 million for the current 18-episode season of “Empire,” according to a person familiar with the situation.
Dezenhall said it would be tough for Smollett, who proclaimed himself innocent of the charges through his lawyers, to explain himself publicly.
“All of us have said something stupid, put something in an email we shouldn’t have — we can understand that. But very few of us would say, ‘I would orchestrate something like that to advance my career.’ There’s a difference between a mistake and a scheme,” Dezenhall said. His advice to Smollett: “’Vanish for a few years, take up a cause, devote yourself to doing something good, and revisit it later.’“
Or search out people like Kandi Burruss, the singer-songwriter and reality star.
“I consider him a friend. I love him and regardless of if it’s true or not, I’m still going to be here for him. I hate the situation but I don’t hate the person,” she told The Associated Press Thursday at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.