Koko was born in 1971 as Hanabi-Ko at San Francisco Zoo. She was described as “tiny,” “unnourished,” “sickly,” “cheerful and curious.” At 12 months, suffering from near-death malnutrition, she was separated from her biological mother and adopted by Penny Patterson, a 24/25-year-old graduate student, who began teaching her American Sign Language (ASL).
The Education of Koko, about Dr. Penny Patterson’s experiences as Koko’s mother and teacher, was published in 1981 with a quote from Koko re herself on the cover: “Fine animal gorilla.”
Today Koko can comprehend ~2000 words of spoken English and more than 1000 signs of ASL. (Thought Catalog, 2011)
Penny Patterson, Ph.D.
President and Director of Research
Dr. Penny Patterson received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Stanford University where, as a graduate student in 1972, she began working with one-year-old Koko, a western lowland gorilla, thus beginning the longest ongoing interspecies communication study ever undertaken. For 30 years, Dr. Patterson has worked with Koko, who has advanced further with sign language than any nonhuman. Able to reveal her thoughts and feelings through the use of 1,000 gestural words, Koko provides unique insight into the mind of a gorilla.
In 1976, Dr. Patterson, Dr. Ronald Cohn, and the late Barbara F. Hiller established the Gorilla Foundation to benefit gorillas living in captivity and those struggling to survive in the rapidly disappearing African rainforest. Dedicated to the preservation, protection and propagation of gorillas and other endangered primates, the Foundation disseminates information about animal intelligence, gorilla behavior and psychobiology through its website (www.gorilla.org), journal, and scientific meetings and articles, and is currently developing a 70-acre gorilla sanctuary on the island of Maui, Hawaii. (Koko.org)
The Gorilla Foundation, like a tree or cloud or other thing from nature, seems to mostly present itself only to an ideal, abstract, fully internalized audience—one that does not question sincerity or intent, that does not require justification or meaning, that would rather The Gorilla Foundation not pause (to defend itself, to allow others time to comprehend it) but to continue always with what it’s already doing. In this manner The Gorilla Foundation exists more in actualization of itself than in opposition to something else, which implies, to some degree, that it doesn’t earnestly believe it—or anything—“needs” to exist or is “right” or “wrong,” rather that its “mission” is a temporary concept, created by itself to directionalize itself, that without which [The Gorilla Foundation] wouldn’t exist. (Thought Catalog, 2011)
In 1977 director Barbet Schroder visited the then three year old gorilla in hopes of basing a fictional film around her, shooting research footage while there. After abandoning the project for technical reasons, he formed the idea for a documentary on Koko after reviewing his preliminary footage. Joined by cinematographer Nestor Almendros, Schroder returned to Stanford University to study Koko and her handler Dr. Penny Paterson’s everyday routine.
Much of Koko: A Talking Gorilla consists of single uncut shots of Koko and Dr. Paterson communicating, with varying amounts of success, through sign language. While potentially tedious, these ongoing scenes allow the audience to watch Koko in as naturalistic a manner as you could hope from a 120+ pound gorilla with a camera and film lights pointed at it. Rounding out the film are brief bouts of interviews and narration by Schroder himself, often providing a query to ponder during the next extended period of observatory footage.
This isn’t to say that the film lacks focus or its own moral slant; it just credits the audience with being smart enough to find them within the selected footage. The real question the film poses (does the ability to express its self make an animal a “person”?) isn’t brought up until the final narration. By that point the viewer has had ample time to study Koko and draw their own conclusions about nature versus nurture being the driving force behind Koko’s communicative skills. (IGN, 2006)