I’ve already talked about Koko, the gorilla and how she changed our perception of her species. Unfortunately, she died on June 19, peacefully in her sleep, only a couple of weeks shy of her 47 birthday (July 4).
Koko was an amazing person, with emotional depth and great intelligence. For those who don’t believe that animals are intelligent, let me tell you this – Koko was given 3 intelligence tests. Those tests were designed for measuring human intelligence but were modified for gorillas. The results showed that her intelligence varied (depending on the test) from 85 to 95. If someone thinks this is low, average human intelligence goes between 90 and 110, while the average low is between 80 and 90, with the average high being 110-120. Having this in mind, it is easy to conclude that Koko was now only somewhat intelligent but that her intellectual capacity was the same as that of the average human. We don’t know if she was an average or highly intelligent gorilla (that would require tests on many gorillas), but it is without a doubt that she was as intelligent as any other human.
She showed the world that gorillas are amazing and profound persons, who not only have emotions (every species had emotions) but can also understand abstract concepts such as love and death.
When we see gorillas and other primates, we see animals sitting, eating and occasionally goofing around. Because that is all we see, that’s all we attribute to them – they are non-intelligent animals who have some biological resemblance with us, but that’s eat. They don’t think, they are incapable of having any deeper needs than those of eating, sleeping and procreating, not to mention any kind of thoughts because, ad we all know it, humans are the only species on the planet with the capacity to reason.
Koko changed that. She showed us that gorillas had the same capacity to reason as we do. Furthermore, she showed us that not only they could think, but that their thoughts and desires were the same as ours. When asked what she wanted most in the world, she said she wanted to be a mother. She would get sad when watching a film in which a child had to separate from the mother to go somewhere else. She understood the scene even though it was being played out on tv and not in real life and, maybe most importantly, even though the protagonists of that scene were not the members of her own species. Here she showed several things – that she understood and felt the strength of the bond between a mother and a child and the pain of the separation, that she could empathize with someone else’s problems and that she could empathize with another species (something that so many humans can’t do).
When asked to imagine that a balloon was her baby, she took a sharpie and drew a gorilla face on it (in her fashion, of course) and started cradling it like a baby. This didn’t only show great emotion but also her capability to imagine things that are not there and pretend that they are something else (like turning an ordinary balloon into a doll baby). She wasn’t stuck in the present circumstances; she was able to transcend her circumstances or even her memory (though she was never a mother herself) and enter the world of imagination. She couldn’t just perform tasks on command; she was capable of creating her own reality.
We like to believe that creating new things and mixing the existing terms to create new ones is an exclusively human trait. Koko proved us wrong. When she didn’t know the word for something, she would create it by combining the words that she did know. For instance, she didn’t know the word for “ring” but knew the words “finger” and “bracelet”, so what she did was ingenious – she combined those two words and created her own word “finger-bracelet”. That’s how we create new words, too. Think for example of the words “lifetime”, “grandmother” or “sunflower”. Those are not new words, but rather compounds. Koko showed us that gorillas were also capable of communicating through words and creating new words using the existing ones.
There is another thing that we think only humans have – language. We now know that’s not true. We know that meerkats and the American prairie dogs have their languages and can even decipher some of the words. While we don’t know any words gorillas use nor have we identified the existence of their language like with did with the two species I just mentioned (bear in mind that those species are not primates… now imagine what the language of other primates must be like, who are biologically much more similar to us than meerkats, who are, on the on the other hand, similar to cats in that that they are cat-like species or feliformia), we can conclude that gorillas also have their language which might be more complex than that of American prairie dogs which is why it is more difficult to identify it.
If you doubt that gorillas might have their own language, think about this – if they are capable of understanding that every object has a name, it means that they must already carry that concept with them. Koko didn’t use the words just to ask for something like food or water, which would suggest that she only understood that if she did a certain action with her hands she would get a certain object. She was also able o convey her emotions, wishes, and desires.
Koko was a truly amazing woman, an inspiration for everyone and the best advocate for the gorilla and all the other mammals as well. You will be greatly missed.