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Koko, the Gorilla Who Knew Sign Language, Dies

In this photo taken on May 13, 2008, Koko enjoys a day in the springtime sun at the Gorilla Foundation in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo: Ron Cohn for the Gorilla Foundation)
Koko, the Gorilla Who Knew Sign Language, Dies
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Koko, the gorilla who became famous for learning sign language, has died in the United States.

The California-based Gorilla Foundation that kept and studied Koko announced that she had passed away in her sleep on Tuesday. She was 46 years old.

“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the foundation said in a statement. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

Koko was a western lowland gorilla born on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. The very next year, Koko began working with Dr. Francine Patterson, who taught her American Sign Language. Her keepers said Koko also understood some spoken English.

The teaching experiment became part of a larger project at California’s Stanford University in 1974. The Stanford project later expanded to include another western lowland gorilla, named Michael, who also learned sign language.

Five years later, the Gorilla Foundation was created in the Santa Cruz Mountains, about 40 kilometers south of San Francisco. The two gorillas were moved there. Michael died in 2000.

Another gorilla named Ndume lived with Koko at the foundation. Researchers say he does not have the same sign language abilities as Koko and Michael.

Koko appeared in many films and television documentaries. She appeared twice in the magazine National Geographic. Her 1978 cover showed a photograph Koko had taken of herself in a mirror.

The second issue, in 1985, included the story of Koko and her pet cat, named All Ball. The story led to the popular book “Koko’s Kitten,” which can be found in many schools worldwide.

Koko adopted two kittens on her 44th birthday — Ms. Gray and Ms. Black. She nurtured and protected them as if they were her own babies. (Gorilla Foundation)
Koko adopted two kittens on her 44th birthday — Ms. Gray and Ms. Black. She nurtured and protected them as if they were her own babies. (Gorilla Foundation)

In 1998, Koko appeared on the internet in what researchers called the first “interspecies chat.” The gorilla used the event to communicate through an interpreter to directly answer questions from fans.

In 2001, Koko got publicity again when actor Robin Williams went to visit her and talked about how moved he was by the experience. “We shared something extraordinary – laughter,” the late actor said at the time.

Western lowland gorillas are threatened in their native environment of central Africa.

The Gorilla Foundation says it will continue to honor Koko by continuing to carry out ongoing projects. These include conservation efforts in Africa and expanding the Maui Great Ape Sanctuary in Hawaii.

In addition, the foundation says it plans to create a sign language computer app including Koko that is designed to help gorillas and children alike.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from the Associated Press and Reuters. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

icon n. a widely known person or symbol

interspecies adj. arising or occurring between species

empathy adj. the ability to understand and share another person's experiences and emotions

mirror n. piece of glass with a shiny material on one side that produces an image of anything that is in front of it

interpreter n. someone whose job is to change what someone else is saying into another language

extraordinary adj. very special, unusual, or strange

conservation n. the protection of nature

app n. a computer program designed to do a specific task or set of related or connected tasks