How Koko the Gorilla Describes Some Words Will Ruin You

If you don’t know how famous Koko, the western lowlands gorilla, is — for some perspective —she has a PR person. I know this because I once contacted Koko’s PR person for the use of some of Koko’s photos and was given a no. Also, in addition to being passed on by Koko the gorilla’s PR person, I don’t even know someone with a PR person, so that’s where I’m at in comparison to an animal only 13 years older than me.

Given Koko’s accomplishments, though, a PR person makes sense. She’s been on the cover of National Geographic twice. She’s had movies and books made about her. There’s a whole website dedicated to her daily goings-on. People pay top dollar for her paintings! Celebrities come to her.

At the heart of the buzz that surrounds Koko is her unusual capacity for language, something that amounts to a signed vocabulary of over a thousand words, and something credited to her handler and caregiver for over 40 years, animal psychologist Dr. Penny Patterson. It’s also something some people doubt the validity of, but I choose not to be one of those people because that’s my right as an American and even though I understand that a large part of primate communication is mimicking, I believe that the bond between Koko and Penny is one that cannot be explained by traditional science and if you want to fight me I’ll see you in the comments.

Koko, a western lowlands gorilla, drinking out of a plastic chalice.

A screenshot from the PBS documentary about Koko

It’s also possible I’m so willing to accept that Koko can understand and communicate complex feelings and ideas because some of the things she comes up with to describe certain words have been known to derail my entire day and I want that kind of magic to be real. Her description for death in particular will never in the history of words be topped, and I feel it is my duty to share it and others with you, admittedly on a site that doesn’t make total sense for this kind of content, but I write here and love her, and who are you, the cops? Enjoy these masterpieces sourced from the Koko’s blog, Koko’s youtube channel, the PBS documentary now available on Netflix, Koko, The Gorilla Who Talks, and collections of interviews and studies.


On death

comfortable hole bye

On a person not understanding you

bad, fake

On masks

eye hat

On rings

finger bracelet

On lions

more cat

On yogurt

milk fruit candy food

On grief

bad sad

On streams

nice drink

On things that displease you

dirty toilet, rotten stink

On earthquakes

darn darn floor bad bite

On insults

think dirty devil

On guilt

sorry bite scratch

On remembering something unpleasant

red red red bad sorry

On aging

trouble old

On that awkward moment when you want someone to leave

time bye you

On pomegranates

red corn drink

On ice cream

my cold cup

On a sad woman

cry lip

On not wanting to see something

unattention

Los Angeles based writer. Let's keep it clean out there!

Erin has written 205 articles for us.

35 Comments

  1. There’s always room for talking about fascinating and strong women on Autostraddle! Dr. Penny Patterson is also a subject that seems to get buried in the wonder that is Koko, but I think that’s ok.

    Also, Koko’s relationship with kittens just slays me. I know I watched the snippets where she opened that box of kittens repeatedly. I feel like “repeatedly” is probably too soft of a word.

    Thanks for sharing this list. I didn’t know I needed this today, and now I realize that I did.

  2. P.S. I also thought that “Comfortable Hole Bye” was going to be a new series where you write about what’s destroyed you in a good way with the cute, or profundity, or restoring faith in humanity level on the internet or in the world/news/media recently. Because I see things all the time, and now instead of thinking “I died” or similar, it’ll be “Comfortable Hole Bye”. Which is appropriate. Comfort is a good thing in these uncertain times.

  3. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING AUTOSTRADDLE HAS EVER PUBLISHED.
    And I’m not just saying that because I am also an Erin.
    I grew up reading World magazine (NatGeo for kids) and the issues with articles about Koko were my absolute favorite. Especially when there was a pull-out poster. I will never forget All Ball, and learned a lot about Manxes because of her. ♥ ♥ ♥

    Also I think we need to make #timebyeyou a thing.

  4. Despite the context, when I read the phrase “red red red bad sorry” I immediately thought “oh no I need to stop this scene IMMEDIATELY and check in with my partner to make sure they’re OK!”

    Just me? Ok cool.

  5. I wrote a speech about Koko in elementary school! I loved the cat All Ball. I definitely just cut photos out of my uncle’s National Geographics instead of contacting her PR person, who sounds like a jerk anyway. I bet gorillas didn’t even have publicists in the mid-’90s.

  6. uuugh i’m really sorry to be the party pooper but my M.A. supervisor was working on ape communication and had a looot of feelings about koko, and none of them good. 😀
    from obvious methodological issues (these phrases are amazing but probably made up by wildly imaginative penny patterson…) to the ethical concerns of raising and keeping great apes like this (isolated from conspecifics, in weird codependent relationships with humans & a generally unhealthy lifestyle), there are some particular facts about koko’s life in the care of patterson that makes this whole thing… iffy? let’s just say there have been sexual harrassment lawsuits by former employees claiming they were forced to show koko their nipples all the time?!?!
    this article sums it up quite well: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/08/koko_kanzi_and_ape_language_research_criticism_of_working_conditions_and.html

    sorry, i’ll go hide in the corner now 😀

    • Thank you for sharing that link and your thoughts! That Slate article was fascinating, and I’m really glad I read it.

      Often the conversation about animal cruelty is so intent on people who treat animals as automatons that it gives a free pass to the very real, often horrific damage done by people who treat animals as humans, instead of recognizing their own distinct needs and experiences. As someone who grew up on a small family farm with regular contact with domesticated and wild animals, I know animals are incredibly intelligent. But not in the ways that people in the large urban center where I live now, who rarely encounter animals that aren’t house pets, think. And a lot of the stuff they project onto pets (which is different from loving them) is really disturbing.

      Also, Slate doesn’t criticize Koko’s Gorilla Foundations for its neocolonialism in Cameroon. Distributing books about one gorilla raised in unnatural and expensive captivity to people who may actually encounter gorillas in the wild is the height of arrogance and imperialistic thinking.

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