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.”


Rake news: Social media ablaze on Trump’s forest remarks for Finland

Updated 19 November 2018
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Rake news: Social media ablaze on Trump’s forest remarks for Finland

  • US President Donald Trump claimed the forest-covered nation prevents wildfires by raking its forest floors
  • Raking-related terms were among the most popular Twitter hashtags and Google searches in the Nordic nation

HELSINKI: Social media in Finland was ablaze with bemused comments on Monday after US President Donald Trump claimed the forest-covered nation prevents wildfires by raking its forest floors.
Speaking to reporters during the weekend while in California to see the impact of devastating forest fires, the US president again blamed forest management, but said Finland had the answer.
Trump cited the Finnish president as telling him Finns “spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things (in the forest), and they don’t have any problem.”
However the Nordic country’s president, Sauli Niinisto, told the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper on Sunday that he had no recollection of raking being mentioned when the pair met in Paris a week ago.
“I told him that Finland is a country covered in forests, but we also have a good warning system and network,” the president said.
Finnish social media users were quick to pile in, describing Trump’s comments as “rake news” and posting pictures of themselves brandishing the garden implement.
By late Sunday, raking-related terms were among the most popular Twitter hashtags and Google searches in the Nordic nation which is 72 percent covered by forests, predominantly of pine, birch and fir.
Meanwhile Yrjo Niskanen, head of emergency preparedness at Finland’s national forest center, said the US president may have been referring to the practice of removing branches and loose material left in the forest after logging.
But he pointed out that this is not done with a rake — and the wood is collected for energy production.
“I’ve never thought before that it could be removed because of the fire risk, that’s not mentioned in any forestry manuals. It’s taken away purely for business reasons,” Niskanen told the Iltalehti newspaper.