It sounds like the beginning of a joke, “what do you get a 400lb gorilla for her birthday?” but it isn’t a joke. The gorilla’s name is Koko. She was born in San Francisco Zoo, and as you’ll see, she’s a very special gorilla indeed.
She was raised by Stanford University’s Francine “Penny” Patterson and formed the kind of bond with her that lasts a lifetime. She also learned something of what it was like to be human and that means celebrating birthdays.
You won’t believe what Koko got for her birthday, but it might just bring a tear of joy to your eyes.
12. Learning the Language
Penny moved to be with Koko and worked with Dr. Ronald Cohn, a well-known zoologist, to try and do something that no-one had ever done before. They wanted to know if Koko could learn some form of sign language to communicate with them and the results were surprising.
11. Serious Vocabulary
Koko was not a slow learner. She quickly began to pick up sign language as Penny and Dr. Kohn brought her books and other learning aids. She can now recognize and respond to more than 2,000 words of English and has learned over 1,000 signs to talk back to people.
10. With Words Came Fame
Koko’s astonishing ability to communicate with people brought her fame around the world. Celebrities often visited Koko and they bonded with her in real life. Robin Williams, who recently passed away, had met and become friends with Koko and she was sad to hear the news of his death.
9. The Queen of Her World
Koko has been made aware that she’s special through the constant stream of visitors that come to see her. She knows that she’s more than just another creature living in a zoo and uses the sign for “queen” when she talks about herself to her teachers and friends.
8. Something’s Missing
Koko is a very happy gorilla most of the time but there are things that can’t be replaced by sign language and celebrity friends. Among them is the desire to have a child of her own. When people enquire what she wants for her birthday she always says “a baby.”
7. All Ball Comes to Koko
Koko has a peculiar life for a great ape, one that straddles both the human and animal lifestyles. She enjoys playing with toys and dolls, but when she was 12, her caregivers decided to see how she’d react to a kitten and All Ball the kitten entered her life.
6. A Sad Loss
All Ball passed away just a few months later, as he was killed in a motor accident. Koko indicated that she was sad, crying, frowning and in trouble. She’s been given other kittens since, including “Smoky” and “Lips Lipstick”. Lips Lipstick stayed with Koko for nearly 20 years before she passed away.
5. Penny Picks the Birthday Treat
Penny has spent more than 40 years working with Koko when her original agreement had been to spend just 4 years with the gorilla. On July 4, 2015, Koko was due to celebrate her 44th birthday and Penny knew exactly what to get her to mark the occasion in a special way.
4. Kittens! Lots of Kittens
Koko wasn’t just given a single kitten but an entire litter of kittens. She’s a sweetheart with them, too. She spent time helping the kittens get used to the way she smells by gently offering her finger to be sniffed before she began to lift the kittens up to care for them.
Koko was absolutely thrilled with her new companions. She indicated that the “babies” were making her very happy indeed. She also had a peculiar request that one kitten, Ms. Gray, be placed on her head so that she could get closer to it than ever before. As you can see, it made for a fantastic occasion.
2. How Are They Doing?
Penny has always wanted to do more than just teach Koko our language, she also wants to make sure that Koko is cared for as well as possible. She released a YouTube video in 2016 that shows that the kittens and Koko have bonded and thrived together and the kittens have become cats.
1. Still Mum
The kittens may have grown up, but they’re not done with Koko – not at all. In fact, all the kittens come back to spend regular time with their “mum” and enjoy a nice cuddle for an hour or more at a time. Then, as cats are wont to do, they drift away for a while before returning again.
So there you have it. The answer to “what do you get a 400lb gorilla for her birthday” isn’t a joke, but the answer should still bring a smile to your face – it’s kittens.
Koko is an amazing creature. She’s learned to talk and communicate with people in a way that no animal has ever done before. She’s also proved that she’s developed some very human characteristics along the way.
She’s become the proud mother of a litter of kittens and demonstrated that she can take care of them and love them as well as any parent can.