Last February, for $19.95 each, the Gorilla Foundation was selling a limited stock of “Koko Plush.” The 12-inch-tall stuffies were inspired by the way Koko the Gorilla looked in 1972. That’s when Penny Patterson, a graduate student in developmental psychology, began teaching Koko sign language, an unprecedented project that drew international attention. Born in the San Francisco Zoo 40 years ago this July, Koko had become ill and been separated from her mother. Patterson received the gorilla on loan, then arranged to keep her for good, a struggle documented in the 1985 book The Education of Koko.
Adorably proportioned, like a much hairier version of a human infant, the toy suggests why Patterson, PhD ’79, might have first fallen in love with Koko. As co-founder of the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, she still cares deeply about this creature’s well-being and the future of this endangered species. As the Koko.org shopping page made explicit, the plush toy is a reminder of how much the real primate wants a baby of her own: “Koko not only deserves to have a baby, her species deserves to have another articulate ambassador for the next generation.”
Koko’s language skills, which Patterson would like to see her teach to a baby gorilla, are only one reason Patterson sees Koko as an interspecies envoy. In Patterson’s care, Koko became deeply enculturated—not only eating cooked food and donning clothes and trinkets but also painting and taking pictures, using a computer, celebrating American holidays and, as seen in an early documentary, bottle-feeding a blonde baby doll. Koko showed a gentle, sensitive side remarkable for an animal many had associated with King Kong.
In an iconic photo that made the January 1985 cover of National Geographic(taken by the foundation co-founder Ron Cohn), Koko tenderly cradles a tiny kitten she named All-Ball. When Koko later learned that All-Ball had been killed by a car, she wailed in a prolonged display of grief. This story, which Patterson and Cohn tell in the children’s book Koko’s Kitten, evokes such empathy that the foundation uses the 1987 book in its ongoing battle against poaching. It has sent nearly 50,000 copies, in miniature booklet form, to African schools.
But now that Koko has outlived several subsequent pet cats, a kitten will no longer do. “Koko’s got her heart set on a baby,” Patterson says, in the tone of an obliging parent, though she has no children. Despite male gorilla company over the years, Koko hasn’t conceived—not with Michael, who Patterson says was more like a brother to Koko, and not with Ndume, a hunky silverback that Koko chose in a video-dating exercise but whom she rarely allows physical intimacy.
“In gorillas, it’s not just a male and female—that’s not a social unit for her,” Patterson explains. Researchers know now that the socio-sexual health of female gorillas requires them to live among other females. Living with two males, as Koko did until Michael’s death in 2000, is particularly threatening. “She couldn’t conceive under those conditions,” Patterson says.
Though in vitro fertilization is an option, Patterson considers it too long a shot to warrant the risks associated with anesthetizing Koko. Patterson would love to adopt a baby gorilla for Koko, but they are hard to come by: Zoos keep most female gorillas on contraception, so every new arrival is wanted. And whereas decades ago she was able to buy Koko and Michael, today U.S. zoo policy is to lend, not sell, gorillas to other institutions.
For many years Patterson’s best hope has been to move Koko to a tropical sanctuary where she could roam freely with other gorillas. A 70-acre land grant from the Maui Land and Pineapple Company in 1993 was the promising first step toward building such a preserve. After the foundation raised $2.5 million and spent it on the groundwork, however, there were repeated setbacks: Hawaii’s red tape, changing ownership and management at ML&P and, above all, the challenges of raising the additional millions necessary for this ambitious project. The recession hasn’t helped. Nor did the firestorm of publicity around sexual harassment lawsuits in 2005, in which three former foundation employees alleged that they’d been pressured by Patterson to show their breasts to Koko. (Patterson denies the allegations, and the cases were dropped.) So Koko and Ndume continue to live in the Woodside hills, where they must sleep indoors at night to stay warm.
Even if the foundation were to raise enough money for the preserve’s first phase—moving the gorillas and their current facilities—it’s uncertain how well Koko would adjust to her new environment, let alone be able to reproduce, says zoologist Kristen Lukas, chair of the Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “If you go through some of your most critical development periods outside of a gorilla social group, you’re starting out behind,” she says. And although the SSP aims for genetic diversity in its breeding recommendations, it breeds gorillas only in AZA-affiliated institutions. Given this policy, it’s not clear where female gorilla companions could come from. But this difficulty doesn’t faze Patterson, whose tenacity has served her well from the very beginning of her relationship with Koko.
“I never say ‘can’t’—only that something is less likely,” she says, noting that AZA’s policies have varied over the years and that the foundation enjoys friendships with non-AZA zoos, such as those in Europe. Gorillas can live into their 50s in zoological environments and have been known to give birth for the first time into their early 40s, Patterson says, and Koko could even conceive and bring a baby to term in Woodside. “The key to any successful venture is just to not give up.”
Because the gorilla site is off-limits to visitors, I meet Patterson in the foundation’s Redwood City offices. Its walls are decorated with Koko’s and Michael’s colorful artwork, and shelves display fan letters and other mementos from happier days. Equally prominent are the many boxes and binders of papers that the foundation is too short-staffed and underfunded to archive properly. (Seven staff work directly with Koko and Ndume; 50 volunteers help five office staff with maintenance, business, research and education.) Patterson, 64, looking as delicate as her often-photographed younger self, now seems more fragile and vulnerable. She speaks openly about her time-consuming devotion to Koko and the foundation’s financial struggles, bemoaning the gradual decay of her project’s video footage.
Whatever happens to her research materials, she’s left a lasting mark. Lyn Miles, a primatologist interested in the personhood of great apes (and who taught sign language to the orangutan Chantek), says Patterson initially aroused the suspicion of scientists by presenting her findings first to the general public and only later publishing in peer-reviewed journals. “But much of what we’re discovering now is in support of some of the claims she made,” Miles says, “so maybe you had to do an end run around the scientific community.”
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.
Patterson herself doesn’t regret the trade-off she made in focusing on language. “A lot of people can build gorilla families; there isn’t anybody who could do what we’ve done.”
COPYRIGHT 2011 © Marina Krakovsky. All Rights Reserved.
This article written by Marina Krakovsky appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Stanford magazine.