Koko the gorilla is famous for being adept at American Sign Language. What originally started as part of a Stanford Ph.D. thesis, became an intricate journey into the mind of a beloved creature (video below).
According to Koko's official website, the initial goal of Project Koko was to see if gorillas could be taught sign language, and if so, how much could we learn about these intelligent animals through direct communication.
After several years, investigators decided to explain their focus to other types of communicatory skills. Instead of centering on a mere scientific experiment, the project grew into researching more about welfare, education and ape conservation.
Koko, who is still being cared for by the same Stanford-trained psychologist, Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson, has learned more than 1,000 signs and reportedly understands about 2,000 English words. Although other ape language studies have generally yielded similar conclusions about the cognitive abilities and capabilities of gorillas, Project Koko is probably the most well-known from this body of work.
In 2001, Koko met the late actor-comedian Robin Williams, and was allegedly somber upon learning of his death. This spurred a debate into the depths of gorilla comprehension, and how much of our own conscious thoughts were being transferred onto Koko.
The famed ape, who is now 44 years old, has always loved babies and gorilla dolls. She reportedly often signs the word "baby," holds gorilla dolls in her arms, and pretends that the dolls know sign language by moving their hands and arms, just like their "mother."
Koko has wanted to have a baby for years, and Patterson would like her to have the opportunity to nurture and teach offspring. Koko never mated with the two other male gorillas that lived in captivity with her. "Michael," who is now deceased, was more like a brother according to Patterson, and "Ndume" and Koko never experienced much physical intimacy, despite Koko allegedly choosing him through video dating.
On Koko's 44th birthday, Patterson had a special gift for the beloved ape: time to bond with a litter of kittens. The box of six kittens, sponsored by staff at the Gorilla Foundation in Redwood City, California, reportedly "energized her world," according to a statement from the foundation. She has now adopted two of the kittens, Ms. Gray and Ms. Black.
“Not only have Koko’s maternal and play instincts kicked in, but she is signing more to her caregivers,” the statement said.