Thank You Koko the Gorilla


When Koko, a western lowland gorilla, was born in the San Francisco Zoo on the Fourth of July, 1971, zoo staff named her Hanibi-Ko: Japanese for “fireworks child”.  Seven years later, now affectionately known as “Koko”, the adolescent ape was chosen to be part of a language research project run by an enterprising psychology doctoral student at Stanford, Francine “Penny” Patterson.

Dr. Patterson taught Koko American Sign Language, and soon Koko could sign over 170 words.  (By the end of her life, Koko could sign over a thousand, and understood even more.) Like many gorillas, Koko enjoyed some activities most commonly associated with human children: she liked to play, learned to ride a tricycle, and even mastered playing some simple musical instruments.  She displayed a sense of humor, and her affection for others was palpable.

Koko soon became a celebrity, featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine and on the TV show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  She adopted a stray kitten as a pet and even gave the kitten a name, signing “All Ball” when she referred to her pet.  When All Ball was hit by a car and died in 1984, Dr. Patterson filmed herself asking Koko “What happened to Ball?” Koko signed an anguished response: “cat, cry, have, sorry, Koko, love”.  Then, after a pause: “inattention” and “visit me”. It was a remarkable insight into the mental state of another species.

Like millions of people around the world, I remember being fascinated by Koko as a child: in awe of the fact that an animal’s inner life could so closely resemble my own.  When news of her death on June 20, 2018, at the age of 46, was announced, it seemed like a personal loss.

For some, Koko called into question the very essence of what it meant to be human.  If personhood is defined by our ability to communicate, to use language, and to experience complex emotions, what does is mean when a non-human displays those very same characteristics?  Writing in the New Yorker, Sarah Larson recalls that Koko seemed to “bridge the divide” between man and ape.  For many, that was an unsettling prospect, upending many of our assumptions about the uniqueness of humans.

Those questions can seem especially troubling from a Jewish point of view.  After all, the Torah teaches that we humans are the apex of creation: the reason the entire universe was made in the first place.  If we make room on our pedestal at the pinnacle of creation for another creature that thinks and acts a bit like us, does that somehow diminish us?  It’s a question that’s been asked for generations, and Judaism has a beautiful answer to give: far from displacing us, each living being in the universe has something key to teach us about God, the world, and ourselves.

It is said that when King David completed writing the Book of Psalms - a series of glorious songs that praise God - he asked whether anyone had ever uttered as many songs and praises as he.  In response, a common frog replied that he recited even more songs and praises each day: in fact, the frog pointed out, his entire life was one huge paeon of praise to God - a testament to the varied nature of the universe and by extension one long hymn to God’s greatness in creating it (Introduction to Perek Shira).  It might seem impossible to best King David, but it was done by a common frog.

So it is with each animal.  The Jewish prayer that’s recited upon setting eyes upon an unusual animal echoes this story: every time we feel awestruck about the natural world, we gain a key new appreciation for its Creator.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who makes the creatures different.  

Gaining new insights into the world around us shouldn’t diminish us by making us feel small.  Recognizing that we share the world with myriad creatures can help us appreciate with a sharp new emotion just how miraculous it is that entire universe with all its creations exists at all.

Koko the gorilla was so unusually intelligent and engaging - even by the standards of other intelligent primates - that she touched the imaginations of a generation.  If Koko was able to master hundreds of words and share her emotions, many of us wondered, then what other wonders are other animals hiding? What other unknown glories exist all around us?  Koko made us ask: Are we doing all we can to understand the marvels in the world around us?

If we let it, Koko’s legacy can help us all grow and appreciate something that Jewish sages have realized for generations: the world is a truly amazing place.  Sometimes it takes a startling natural wonder like Koko to shake us out of our complacency and remind us to fully value the wonders all around. Rest in peace Koko.  We will miss you.