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An audience with Koko the 'talking' gorilla

My location is a closely guarded secret: a ranch somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains, several miles outside the small California town of Woodside. And for good reason, for its resident is something of a celebrity. She lives here with a male friend and both value their privacy, so much so that I’m asked to keep absolutely silent as I walk the single-track dirt path that winds through a grove of towering redwoods up to a little Portakabin.

Inside, I’m asked to put on a thin medical mask to cover my nose and mouth and a pair of latex gloves. Then my guide, Lorraine, tells me to follow another dirt trail to a different outbuilding. This one has a small wooden porch attached and it’s here that I sit on a plastic chair and look up at an open door, separated from the outside world by a wire fence that stretches the length and width of the frame. And there she is: Koko. A 300lb lowland gorilla, sitting staring back at me and pointing to an impressive set of teeth.

I’d been told beforehand not to make eye contact initially as it can be perceived as threatening, and so I glare at the ground. But I can’t help stealing brief glances at this beautiful creature.

Koko, if you’re not familiar, was taught American sign language when she was about a year old. Now 40, she apparently has a working vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and understands around 2,000 words of spoken English. Forty years on, the Gorilla Foundation’s Koko project has become the longest continuous inter-species communications programme of its kind anywhere in the world.

I sign “hello”, which looks like a sailor’s salute, and she emits a long, throaty growl. “Don’t worry, that means she likes you,” comes the disembodied voice of Dr Penny Patterson, the foundation’s president and scientific director, from somewhere inside the enclosure. “It’s the gorilla equivalent of a purr.” Koko grins at me, then turns and signs to Dr Patterson. “She wants to see your mouth… wait, she particularly wants to see your tongue,” Dr Patterson says, and I happily oblige, pulling my mask down, poking my tongue out and returning the grin.

Another soft, deep roar. Dr Patterson emerges from a side door, closing it behind her, and joins me on the porch. Koko makes a sign. Dr Patterson translates: "Visit. Do you.

“Oh, sweetheart,” she says to Koko, then turns to me: “She’d like you to go inside.” Over the years Koko has inadvertently become a poster child for the gorilla conservation movement. There are several subspecies of gorilla, and today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, all are either endangered or critically endangered. There are thought to be more than 700 mountain gorillas left in the wild; just under 17,000 eastern lowland gorillas, 10,000 western lowland gorillas, and only 200-or-so Cross River gorillas. All are in sub-Saharan Africa and are threatened by either the illegal trade in bushmeat, loss of habitat due to logging and agricultural expansion, or disease.

According to Drew McVey, the World Wildlife Fund’s species programme manager for Africa, while tourism may be helping mountain gorilla numbers, with other subspecies the news isn’t so good. “For a lot of people in the forest, there is simply no other source of protein,” he says. “But more disturbing is the increased novelty trade.”

Attempts to educate communities where poaching is rife about gorilla conservation has, evidently, largely failed; statistics about dwindling numbers of great apes just don’t resonate with people who can make good money from gorilla meat or body parts, or for those for whom the logging industry puts dinner on the table. But some conservationists believe stories like Koko’s – of how an “inculturated’ gorilla (the word researchers use for primates that have essentially had their own culture suppressed and adopted a more human-like culture) has actually communicated with us and demonstrated her intelligence – could be the answer. We should attempt, in other words, to win hearts, rather than minds.

At 40, Koko finds herself in a position where she could possibly be more relevant than ever. But she’s advanced in gorilla years and the Gorilla Foundation is determined to ensure her legacy. That means allowing her to pass on her knowledge of human sign language to her offspring, but despite repeated attempts to get her to successfully mate – first with the male silverback, Michael, and then, more recently, with another, Ndume, her current partner – Koko’s keepers’ efforts have been in vain.

It’s rare that anyone gets to meet Koko up close. I find out just how seldom at the Gorilla Foundation offices when I’m told most of the staff there have only ever been outside her enclosure. A handful of celebrities, Leonardo Di Caprio and Robin Williams included, plus a few business leaders have had the pleasure, but this was to raise her profile or secure donations for the foundation. Few journalists have had the opportunity, and I’m told none has spent as long as I will – an hour-and-a-half – in her company.

Looming above is a huge three-storey enclosure that Koko can access via a hatch. Inside that is Ndume, the male silverback. We can’t see each other but I’m told he is well aware I’m here and I have to keep my voice down as he’s protective of Koko.

Inside the kitchen area, I’m still separated from Koko by bars. Watched by Koko’s official photographer, Gorilla Foundation co-founder Ron Cohn, I open up the carrier bag of goodies I’ve bought from Toys R Us and flick through a picture book on zoo animals, touching each page and holding it up to her eyes. She then points to the padlock on the door and signs for Dr Patterson to open it. I sit cross-legged and Koko shuffles her 300lb frame towards me. Wearing a mask and gloves to protect her from human viruses, I’m sweating now and still trying desperately not to make eye contact. Suddenly, I feel her leathery hand softly touch mine. She pulls me gently towards her chest, wrapping her arms around me. I can smell her breath – sweet and warm, not unlike a horse’s. After she releases me from her embrace, she makes another sign – fists together. “She wants you to follow – to chase her,” Dr Patterson says.

Koko lightly takes my hand and places it in the bend in her arm before leading me around the small room, cluttered with soft toys and clothes designed to stimulate her imagination. I shuffle along the floor so as not to seem threatening, but it’s amazing how gentle she is.

My wife and I had a baby daughter just three weeks before my visit and I pull a photo out of my pocket to show her. I’ve learnt the sign – pointing to myself and then making a rocking motion with my arms – to indicate “my baby”. Incredibly, Koko takes the photo, looks at it, and kisses it. She then turns, picks up a doll from the mound of toys beside her and holds it up to me.

Read on and view photos



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