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Some of the discusions have touched upon birdsong, potato washing apes etc.
I had forgotton about this item till i read the Sunday Times (UK) 27/1/02,
about Koko the gorilla and her use of sign language to communicate. I must
admit that i am still not convinced but the evidence does seem compelling.
On a similar vein, Susan Blackmore did some programmes in the UK on non
human communication and featured an urangutan(?) that appeared to be able to
connect the idea of a model as a representation of an actual room and could
locate objects that were pointed out in the model, in the room itself. As i
say, not convinced, but...
SUNDAY JANUARY 27 2002
Spectrum: Gorillas have a word for it
Lucy Broadbent interviews Koko, the first gorilla to learn sign language,
and the woman who has spent 20 years teaching her to speak
At first I could see only the outline of an arm through a crack in the
curtains. Then two black fingers holding onto them. Their owner, who liked
the curtains of her caravan closed on wet days, was waiting for us. There
was a grunt of excitement. Then the curtains were pulled open.
Look Koko in the eye, and she wants to know everything about you — she asks
first if I would show her my nipples and the fillings in my teeth. Nothing
had prepared me for a gorilla who told me, “Earrings, beautiful”, and left
me feeling star struck.
Koko is the first gorilla to have been taught sign language. With a
vocabulary of more than 1,000 words and an IQ of 80, she is the first to
prove we share a world with other intelligent beings who feel emotions, look
forward to Christmas and also have a sense of humour.
The 30-year study of Koko has redefined science’s concept of gorilla
intelligence. Genetically, there is only a 2% difference between gorillas
and humans: we share the same blood type, have the same number of hairs per
square inch and also the same temperament, according to scientists.
But what had gone unrecognised by the scientific community was that gorillas
also have the ability to learn a language and have complex emotions — what
better proof than Koko’s agitated state when she overheard her carers
discussing the events of September 11.
Koko lives in the Santa Cruz mountains, in a wooded spot overlooking Silicon
Valley. She has her own caravan, with a nest of blankets, which is her bed,
in one corner; and a potty, which she has been trained to use, in another.
She has a barrel on which she likes to sit when talking to humans — gorillas
feel more secure when they can look down on others — while her toys are
strewn everywhere. In addition she has an outside enclosure where she spends
her days when it is not raining.
“Cold bad, Gorilla hate,” Koko tells me, as I stand, dripping, outside her
caravan. But although Koko was interested in me, and told me “Visitor good”,
it is her conversations with Dr Penny Patterson, 53, that are inspiring.
“The overriding reality of my discovery is that our abilities as humans, our
skills, sensibilities and emotions are almost identical to the great apes.
The separation (between) humans and everything else on the planet is
artificial,” she explains.
“We are naked apes. They’re just like us inside.
“I am shocked every day by Koko’s understanding and her capabilities. What
we have learnt is that gorillas are more complex than we ever imagined.”
Patterson was a psychology student when Koko was born in San Francisco zoo
in 1971. Language studies had been made using chimpanzees before, but never
with a gorilla. “My initial expectation was I’d work with Koko for four
years,” she says. “But after a few evenings together, I couldn’t put her
down. I ended up staying with her until she’d fall asleep.”
Years later Patterson still has the same bedtime routine. When she began
teaching Koko the sign language that deaf-mute people use, forcing the
little fingers of the one-year-old gorilla into the correct positions for
“drink”, “eat”, “more” and rewarding her with food, she had no idea how
quickly Koko would pick it up.
“At first, it seemed Koko was using it as a tool to get something,” says
Patterson. “It became the kind of reward system that you could expect of a
cat or dog. But early on she began to combine signs, that made me think she
was capable of more.”
Now Koko is so proficient in sign language that if she doesn’t know a word,
she invents one. For example, she didn’t know the word for “ring”, so she
combined the signs for “finger” and “bracelet” to express it.
“What I have learnt is that gorillas have their own gestural system, that I
was simply building on,” Patterson explains. “It’s instinctive for them to
gesture, just as it is for us. Koko already knew how to ask a question, how
to modulate a sign, how to make it violent or emphatic. All I did was teach
her the words.”
Patterson describes Koko’s personality as wilful and stubborn: “She loves
babies and young people. She likes feminine things like brushes, lipsticks,
scarves and jewellery. And when she’s asked what gorillas like best, she
always says ‘Gorilla love eat, good’.”
One of Patterson’s favourite stories demonstrates Koko’s sense of humour.
When a visitor asked her to show him something scary, she held up a mirror
to his face.
When Patterson asked her what she would like for her 11th birthday, Koko
signed she wanted a cat. The story of Koko’s kitten enabled Patterson to
learn more about her charge: the kitten was hit by a car and Patterson had
to break the news to Koko, who signed “Cry, sad, frown”. Then, once alone,
Patterson heard Koko make the gorilla’s distress call: a loud series of
“It showed us another level of the intelligence of non-human animals,” says
Patterson. “Because Koko could talk about it, she was able to express her
grief. Even now, 15 years later, she will still sign ‘Sad frown’ if she sees
Patterson now wants Koko to conceive. “Koko wants babies badly,” she says.
“She tells me so.” Patterson wants to see if Koko will teach her young the
same sign language that she uses. But all mating efforts have been
From the age of three, Koko shared her quarters with Michael who was
intended as a mate. “The problem was they were raised together and had
become siblings,” says Patterson. “Female gorillas reject brothers, just as
Ndume, who Koko chose herself by kissing the television screen showing video
footage of gorilla bachelors, has since been introduced to her. But
Patterson suspects Koko lacks sexual confidence and needs other females
around her for encouragement, as in the wild.
Michael died suddenly two years ago of a heart attack. The shock of losing
him stopped Koko’s periods. “Koko went into a depression following Michael’s
death,” says Patterson. “She would just sit for hours with her head hung
low, looking sad.”
Koko was beginning to look bored as my 15-minute audience with her was up.
She wandered off to play with her toy alligator. I asked her if she was
looking forward to moving to Hawaii, where Patterson is raising money to
build a gorilla refuge. Koko signed “Yes”, but only if there were curtains.
And would we mind drawing hers as we left?
Donations for the Gorilla Preserve can be sent to The Gorilla Foundation,
Box 620530, Woodside, CA94062. For more information, visit www.koko.org.
From the Sunday Times, UK. Section 5, p9. www.sunday-times.co.uk
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