Koko was among the last great apes used in still controversial 1970s language research
WOODSIDE, California––With Koko deceased, what now will become of Ndume, 37, the last and least famous of the three gorillas who once shared the Gorilla Foundation sanctuary and primate language research laboratory in the Santa Cruz Mountains, south of San Francisco?
What will become of the Gorilla Foundation itself?
Koko, 46, “known for her extraordinary mastery of sign language, and as the primary ambassador for her endangered species, died in her sleep on the morning of June 19, 2018,” the Gorilla Foundation announced a day later.
Opened hearts, minds, & questions
The major questions ahead involving Ndume, the Gorilla Foundation, and the future plans of founder Penny Patterson, 71, were left mostly unanswered, perhaps because for now those questions cannot yet be answered.
“Koko’s capacity for language and empathy has opened the minds and hearts of millions,” the Gorilla Foundation resuméd, “She has been featured in multiple documentaries and appeared on the cover of National Geographic twice. The first cover, in October 1978, featured a photograph Koko had taken of herself in a mirror. The second, in January 1985, included the story of Koko and her kitten, All Ball,” the first of many kittens and cats who were Koko’s companions.
“Following the [second] article,” the Gorilla Foundation continued, “the book Koko’s Kitten was published and continues to be used in elementary schools worldwide. Koko’s impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world.”
“Shape the world”?
This was not necessarily an overstatement in view of primatologist Jane Goodall’s observations about how U.S. President Donald Trump made politically effective use of great ape body language during the 2016 election campaign.
(See Why people who care about animals won’t vote for Donald Trump.)
“The foundation will continue to honor Koko’s legacy and advance our mission,” the Gorilla Foundation pledged, “with ongoing projects including conservation efforts in Africa, the great ape sanctuary on Maui, and a sign language application featuring Koko for the benefit of both gorillas and children.”
But the Gorilla Foundation mentioned Ndume only in passing, and said nothing specific about the other work of the foundation, whose fundraising capacity may now be steeply diminished.
Work in Africa
More than half of the Gorilla Foundation budget in 2016, $873,000 of $1.58 million, was invested in three conservation projects in Africa, according to the most recent available Gorilla Foundation filing of IRS Form 990.
Of necessity, however, the work was actually carried out by three other organizations that each have a boots-on-the-ground presence in gorilla habitat: the Biosynergy Institute, the United Africa Association, and Pan Africa Conservation Education.
70 acres on Maui
The “great ape sanctuary on Maui,” 25 years in purported development, still does not actually exist.
“The Gorilla Foundation has raised and invested roughly $2 million to develop a beautiful leased 70-acre site,” says the foundation web site. “We are now looking to expand that site to approximately 350 acres and secure it as a great ape sanctuary in perpetuity — by finding a major donor to purchase the land.”
Elaborated Marina Krakovsky for the Stanford Alumni magazine in 2011, “A 70-acre land grant from the Maui Land and Pineapple Company in 1993 was the promising first step,” but it also appears to have been very nearly the last step.
Ndume, meanwhile, is the gorilla of whom the Gorilla Foundation has said the least over the years, remaining upstaged even by Michael, who died in 2000 at age 27.
The gorilla who threw poop in Cincinnati
“Ndume joined the Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org in 1991, after spending his first 10 years at the Cincinnati Zoo,” says the foundation web site, omitting mention of his 1988-1991 stint at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, and without noting that Ndume, like Koko, was hand-raised by humans, but with very different results.
Instead of becoming an international celebrity, Ndume appears to be a bit of an embarrassment, the big silverback who never seems to have done anything especially unique, sensitive, or clever, who by most accounts has chiefly just been a frustrated, often angry male adult gorilla.
“Born in 1981 and already a father of three, 400-pound Ndume” was “Koko’s intended mate,” says the Gorilla Foundation web site, in a capsule biography not updated in many years.
“Koko selected Ndume from a number of available males, via ‘video dating,’” the Gorilla Foundation claimed, “and though they have been getting along extremely well,” a point disputed by a variety of former Gorilla Foundation volunteers, staff, and primate experts, “there has been no mating behavior. The main reason for this,” the Gorilla Foundation speculated, “is probably because a natural gorilla group has multiple females for each male, and Koko has never had the support of additional females.”
What really happened?
“Ndume is also providing the opportunity for us to discover methods of dealing with aberrant behaviors,” the Gorilla Foundation web site admitted.
“You don’t have to delve very deep to discover why this particular gorilla was chosen to be part of the infamous Koko publicity machine,” countered “Chimp Trainer’s Daughter” blogger Dawn (Brown) Forsythe in March 2013, beginning an ongoing social media campaign to have Ndume transferred back to the Cincinnati Zoo.
Continued Forsythe, “He mightily offended zoo patrons and officials at both Cincinnati Zoo and Brookfield Zoo. The zoos wanted to get rid of Ndume because he threw feces and regurgitated food,” to a notorious extent.
Could Ndume have saved Harambe?
Had Ndume been transferred back to Cincinnati, he and not the ill-fated Harambe, 17, would almost certainly have become the dominant silverback.
As boss of the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla colony, Ndume rather than Harambe would probably have taken the lead in investigating on May 28, 2016 when a four-year-old boy fell into the moat at the soon-to-be-replaced gorilla exhibit. Ndume might have behaved differently from Harambe, who violently swung the boy’s head close to the concrete walls of the moat––or Ndume, rather than Harambe, might have been shot to save the boy’s life.
Ndume, alleged Forsythe, citing several anonymous sources, “lives in a trailer. Since Ndume and Koko are never allowed in the same enclosure together, he is closed inside for meals while Koko is given access to the outdoor enclosure. Food is used as a tool to motivate him to come in,” when he is allowed out. “If he doesn’t come in, he is punished and doesn’t get to eat.”
Both Ndume and Koko, according to multiple sources over many years, were given frequent doses of a variety of homeopathic treatments of often questioned value.
Koko, recounted the Gorilla Foundation announcement of her death, was “a western lowland gorilla, born Hanabi-ko, Japanese for ‘Fireworks Child,’ on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo.”
Francine Patterson, usually called Penny, then a graduate student at Stanford University, began teaching Koko to understand and use American Sign Language a year later, assisted by June Monroe, a sign language interpreter for a local church.
The second oldest of seven children born to C.H. and Frances Spano Patterson, Penny Patterson followed her psychology professor father into an academic career.
“Her mother died of cancer when Patterson was a freshman in college and the youngest of her siblings was just five years old,” Wikipedia recounts. “This triggered her interest in developmental psychology. Patterson earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1970. She attained her Ph.D. in 1979 from Stanford University, with her dissertation Linguistic Capabilities of a Lowland Gorilla, on teaching sign language to Koko and Michael,” acquired at about age three in 1976.
Michael, friend of Koko
Michael had been captured as a baby by poachers in Cameroun who killed his mother. Like Koko, Michael learned and used American Sign Language. Patterson and other Gorilla Foundation staff believe he tried several times to describe how he was captured.
Michael, however, became better known for his painting. Michael and Koko were close, but Koko rejected him as a potential mate. He died on April 19, 2000 from a sudden heart attack.
Meanwhile, Patterson and colleague Ronald Cohn formally incorporated the Gorilla Foundation in 1978, establishing the Woodside headquarters in 1979.
While the National Geographic photo that Koko took of herself in a mirror made her famous, it was her response to the loss of her kitten All Ball, who was hit by a car, that caused humans worldwide to fall in love with her.
Recounted Jeffrey Kluger for Time, “She mourned openly. ‘Cat, cry, have-sorry, Koko-love, unattention, visit me,’ she signed. She expressed her grief in more or less the same way we would—and she apparently experienced it in exactly the same way, too.
“Over the millennia,” Kluger explained, “scientists and philosophers who could not deny that animals appeared to have emotions, thoughts and inner lives could still draw a bright line between them and us thanks to language. Patterson’s wager — the correct one — was that part of what made us so special was simply that evolution spotted us the hardware of speech: vocal cords, a palate, a tongue and lips that could produce such an infinitely varied array of sounds. So Patterson worked with what Koko did have — her dextrous, expressive hands.”
“Koko breached the language berm”
“After Koko breached the language berm that we thought separated us from all other species,” wrote Kluger, “more animals have come across,” including Kanzi, the 37-year-old bonobo who can understand hundreds of lexigrams representing words and actions, and can construct sentences by pointing out the correct symbol on a screen. There is Chaser, the 14-year-old border collie, who knows the name of 1,022 objects and can retrieve them on command. There was Alex, the 31-year-old gray parrot, who died in 2007 with a vocabulary of 150 words and the same ability as Koko and Kanzi to assemble them into thoughts and sentences.”
But while other animals helped to break down the “language berm,” Koko went on to enduring media stardom. In June 1998, for instance, 8,000 America OnLine members flooded her with more than 13,000 questions, in the first-ever public interview of an animal of another species.
Food, cats, dreams & ambitions
“Speaking” through a special computer with a symbolic keyboard, Koko answered about a dozen inquiries in 45 minutes.
Patterson, monitored by reporters, who packed the Gorilla Foundation kitchen to watch, Patterson converted typed text into sign language, then summarized Koko s responses and e-mailed them out.
Koko talked about apple juice, her favorite foods, her pet cats, her dreams, and her personal aspirations.
“In 2001,” recalled Bill Chappell for National Public Radio, “Koko made a fast friend in comedian Robin Williams, trying on his glasses, showing him around, and getting him to tickle her. Then they made faces at each other — and the gorilla seemed to recall seeing Williams in a movie. Years later, in 2014, Koko was one of many who mourned Williams’ passing.
“Koko amazed scientists in 2012, when she showed she could learn to play the recorder,” Chappell added. “The feat revealed mental acuity but also, crucially, that primates can learn to intricately control their breathing — something that had been assumed to be beyond their abilities.”
Koko on global warming
In December 2015, however, the Gorilla Foundation and the NOE Foundation, of France, produced a public service announcement starring Koko, released in conjunction with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, that was denounced by the fact-checking web site Snopes as “essentially nothing more than a staged commercial.”
Signed Koko, “I am gorilla. I am flowers, animals. I am nature. Man Koko love. Earth Koko love. But Man stupid. Stupid! Koko sorry. Koko cry. Time hurry! Fix Earth! Help Earth! Hurry! Protect Earth. Nature see you. Thank you.”
“Research did not deliver”
As science journalist Jane Hu had already pointed out in Slate, “Koko is perhaps the most famous product of an ambitious field of research, one that sought from the outset to examine whether apes and humans could communicate. In dozens of studies, scientists raised apes with humans and attempted to teach them language. But the research didn’t deliver on its promise. No new studies have been launched in years, and the old ones are fizzling out. A behind-the-scenes look at what remains of this research today reveals a surprisingly dramatic world of lawsuits, mass resignations, and dysfunctional relationships between humans and apes.
“Unlike us,” Hu wrote, “it seems that apes don’t care to chitchat. Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that studies with Kanzi the bonobo show that only 4% of his signs are commentary, meaning the other 96 percent are all functional signs, asking for food or toys. Similar skepticism about Koko emerged in the 1980s, when [Columbia University language researcher]Herb Terrace published a fairly scathing critique of ape language research. Among other criticisms, Terrace asserted that Koko’s signs were not spontaneous but instead elicited by [her handler’s] asking her questions.”
The global warming message from Koko appeared to affirm Terrace’s critique.
Commented biological anthropologist Barbara J. King of the College of William & Mary, “This reminds me of earlier attempts by the Gorilla Foundation to showcase Koko’s ability to understand things that there is little chance she could understand, at least in the ways suggested.
“Anthropomorphism — the projection of so-called human qualities onto other animals — is not inevitably wrong,” King allowed. “Other animals may share with us many ways of thinking and feeling, and recognizing that fact is often appropriate.
“But the anthropomorphism in this video is not appropriate. Not even linguistically inclined apes comprehend anything close to the dynamic interplay between humans and nature that underlies anthropogenic climate change.”
King was, at the time, a member of the editorial board of the scholarly journal Animal Sentience, sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States. She resigned in February 2018 after the HSUS board voted to retain former president Wayne Pacelle despite allegations that he had sexually harassed subordinates. Pacelle himself resigned soon afterward.
(See Wayne Pacelle resigns HSUS presidency, succeeded by Kitty Block.)
Observed Marina Krakovsky for the Stanford alumni magazine even earlier, in 2011, “It would be a sad irony if, by insisting on the personhood of the gorilla, Patterson should prove to have anthropomorphized Koko too much. Could Koko have lost essential parts of her gorillahood? Only in retrospect can we answer this question—and even then, inconclusively.”
Kubi, the lost brother
Though Koko mourned All Ball, Michael, and apparently Robin Williams, she is not reported to have had any response to the May 18, 2004 death of her younger brother Kubi.
Kubi, 29, the San Francisco Zoo silverback gorilla, died 11 days after veterinarians tried to save his life by removing his diseased right lung.
Bwang, Kubi’s mate of 22 years, tried repeatedly to revive him with gifts of fruit.
Koko probably never knew Kubi, who was born in 1975, but Koko reputedly did watch a lot of television, and the story of Kubi’s death was extensively reported.
The Gorilla Foundation was meanwhile prominently embroiled in the “world of lawsuits, mass resignations, and dysfunctional relationships between humans and apes” that Jane Hu described.
Most notoriously, Associated Press on December 1, 2005 reported that former Gorilla Foundation employees Nancy Alperin, then 47, and Kendra Keller, then 48, had settled a lawsuit they jointly filed in February 2005, claiming they were fired for refusing to expose their breasts to Koko. Alperin and Keller also contended that they worked unpaid overtime and were obliged to work amid unsanitary conditions.
Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. Alperin had asked for $719,830 and Keller for $366,192. A parallel suit filed by a third ex-employee, Iris Rivera, 39, remained pending, Associated Press said. What became of that case was apparently not reported.
Alperin and Keller said they were fired one day after California occupational health and safety inspectors fined the Gorilla Foundation $300 for violations that were later corrected, said San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Patricia Yollin.
“The gorilla who talks”
The legend of Koko was established globally, perhaps for generations, by the August 2016 BBC documentary Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks.
Responded King, “That Patterson has devoted her life to Koko is not in question. Emotion is written on Patterson’s face and in her eyes when one of the BBC filmmakers asks her if she has any regrets. Koko would be ‘more fulfilled,’ Patterson says, if she had been able to be a mother and have her own gorilla family group.”
Possibly relevant is that Patterson herself also never had children.
“But in some critical ways, the BBC gave Patterson an easy pass,” King said. “No mention was made,” for example, of the Maui fiasco, nor of “the mass resignation of Gorilla Foundation employees and volunteers that occurred in 2012: nine at once, followed by almost all of the foundation board members,” amid a “variety of concerns put forth about Koko’s weight gain, diet, and the quality of her veterinary care.
Pills in old age
“Perhaps most concerning,” King wrote, “was the charge — made by more one than one person — that a psychic was responsible for aspects of Koko’s care, including the large number of pills Koko was given daily,” often at her own request, according to the Gorilla Foundation web site.
Koko was by then elderly, as gorillas go.
Perhaps, like many elderly people, she had developed aches and pains for which she at least imagined that pills could help.
Perhaps the pills had only placebo value.
But if Koko thought they did help, even if they did not, that was something else that she and humans had in common.
Dawn Forsythe says
This is good encapsulation of the issues surrounding Koko, Ndume, and Penny. Since Ndume is still owned by Cincinnati Zoo, I hope they will step up to reclaim him. I’m afraid, however, that Penny will need to keep a gorilla — and Ndume is the only one available to her — to maintain the pretense of her non-existent research.
It is always easy to judge others from outside and to point fingers without knowing all the facts. For all of us who were captivated by Koko, Michael, All Ball, and their family of all species, I pray she had a good life and that Ndume will as well, wherever he may live and with whomever.
Connie Mogull says
Your statement expressed simply what so very many of us think and would say. In every way animals are severely exploited by humans, and it is horrifying when looked at closely. To me, those particularly, Penny, wanted the best for KoKo. What is or was best will never really be known. Koko did get love, food, a safe place to live, companionship of her own kind and we humans got to see the potential in another specie and hopefully learned that more than anything, kindness and not violence makes all the difference.
Returning to a zoo is not what I would wish for anyone.