For those who aren’t familiar with Koko’s story, the Gorilla Foundation tells the tale in full. Koko was born in 1971 in the San Francisco Zoo, got rejected by her mother after becoming ill, and took on a human parental figure: Francine “Penny” Patterson. Patterson was doing her graduate dissertation in psychology at Stanford at the time, saw Koko in the zoo, and decided to dedicate “at least a few years” to the baby gorilla as part of her dissertation, but ultimately engaged in a lifelong experiment to see just how deeply she and Koko could communicate. So when Koko — full name Hanabi-ko (“fireworks child” in Japanese) — learned how to sign for food, drink, etc., within the first year of her life, Patterson was well on her way to founding Project Koko. Originally formed as a means to teach Koko American Sign Language (ASL), Project Koko’s goals — much like Koko’s impact — expanded to encompass an array of conservational, educational, and research-driven ends.
Rather than just grunt and point and hope to communicate with our gorilla cousins, Patterson and her team developed a specific methodology — Interspecies Communication (IC) — for teaching and implementing ASL as the means of speaking with primates like Koko. Koko became a media sensation and the de facto spokesperson for the entire venture, but the Gorilla Foundation interacted with three gorillas total, including Michael and Ndume. All three are western lowland gorillas, a critically endangered species that the Smithsonian National Zoo describes as a “quiet, peaceful, and non-aggressive” herbivore.