Koko, the western lowland gorilla who communicated with humans via sign language, has died in her sleep, according to the Gorilla Foundation. She was 46.
Koko was born on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. As an infant, she was selected by psychologist Penny Patterson to participate in a language research project. She showed an aptitude for American Sign Language, and became a beloved international figure for her skill. At the age of seven, Koko and her story were featured in National Geographic, the cover of which was a picture of Koko in the mirror that she had taken herself. In 1985, Koko was featured again in the magazine, for her special relationship with a kitten named All Ball—the story of which is truly one of the sweetest and most pure expressions of love in our time.
All Ball was a kitten previously fostered by a small terrier until she found brief happiness and companionship with Koko. “They would play chase with each other and she (Koko) would hold it and pet it,” Ron Cohn, a researcher with the Gorilla Project, told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “The cat reacted to her as she would a human, but she was pretty independent and would bite Koko or wriggle loose when she got tired of being babied.”
In an unfortunate turn of events, All Ball died tragically after wandering into the road near the research facility where she lived. According to the Los Angeles Times, Koko was heartbroken.
“When we told Koko, she acted like she didn’t hear us for about 10 minutes,” Cohn said. “Then she started whimpering—a distinct hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad. We all started crying together.”
Koko then said, “Sleep. Cat.” by folding her hands and placing them at the side of her head, Cohn said.
All Ball was not the first kitten Koko would befriend. If you are now near tears at the thought of Koko mourning All Ball’s untimely passing, please watch this which will make you feel maybe a tiny bit better.
Adults of a certain age with fond memories of Scholastic Book Fairs may have gotten their first introduction to Koko via two children’s books written by Dr. Patterson and photographed by Cohn. The first, Koko’s Story, told the tale of the first 14 years of Koko’s life with Dr. Patterson, detailing how she learned to sign and how she interacted with humans. In Koko’s Kitten—which functions as a sort of pre-internet version of all those memes featuring capybaras mothering ducks, squirrels, and toy poodles—we learn about how Koko and All Ball spent their days together. Both are excellent reads that show the breadth of interspecies relationships and compassion between creatures—a nice thing to think about these days when it seems the world is slowly setting itself afire.
“Her 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,” the Gorilla Foundation wrote on its website. Rest in peace, Koko. You were maybe the only good one.