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Star-Bulletin Features


Friday, September 22, 2000


Crazy 'bout Koko

The 'talking' gorilla makes her
move to the Gorilla Foundation
on Maui in 2002

Koko's not a people gorilla


By Tim Ryan
Star-Bulletin

FAMOUS primate Koko, the gorilla who has learned to "talk," has been growing more impatient about her oft-delayed relocation from a Northern California reserve to a West Maui setting that matches almost perfectly her African home.

"Koko thought we would be in Hawaii years ago," says Francine "Penny" Patterson. "She's intrigued by all the beautiful flowers from photos we've shown her of her new home. She asks when we're moving."

The move, originally set for the mid-'90s, was delayed mostly because of lack of funds. The foundation has about $3.3 million of the $10 million first-phase costs, Patterson said.

The California-based Gorilla Foundation is creating a 70-acre preserve for lowland gorillas in the rain forest above Kapalua. Koko, 300 pounds and 5-feet tall, and, Ndume, her 375-pound male companion, are scheduled to make the move in 2002.


Gorilla Foundation/ Dr. Ronald Cone
Francine "Penny" Patterson started her work with Koko as
part of her graduate studies at Stanford 27 years ago. Although
Koko has a male gorilla companion, Ndume, Patterson says
Koko still seeks the perfect mate.



The 10-acre first phase of the Maui project includes a 1.5-acre enclosure divided into two compounds: one side for a gorilla family group and the other for "bachelors," Patterson said. Phase I also includes a two-story research building, gorilla living area and a visitor center. Fencing will be exactly like the one in California: mesh on all sides and overhead.

Groundbreaking and a traditional Hawaiian blessing for The Allan G. Sanford Sanctuary will take place Oct. 12. In 1993, Mary Cameron Sanford and Maui Land & Pine provided a 65-year lease on the land at a nominal fee. The site is named in honor of Sanford's son, who died in 1990.

The three phases of the gorilla sanctuary will cost about $30 million with expected completion in 10 years, Patterson said. Phase II plans include an interpretative center in Lahaina to be used to educate the public about gorillas and The Gorilla Foundation's language project.

The primary program of The Gorilla Foundation is teaching American Sign Language to Koko, whose original name was Hanabi-Ko, and Ndume. Project Koko is the longest continuous inter-species communications project of its kind in the world.

Koko began her language studies with Patterson at age 1. Koko has a working vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs, understanding about 2,000 words of spoken English. She initiates the majority of conversations with her human companions and constructs statements averaging three to six words. Her tested IQ is between 70 and 95 on a human scale, where 100 is considered "normal" in a human, Patterson said.


A typical lowland gorilla social grouping includes one male and several females, she said.

"Right now we have the beginning of a gorilla family unit with Koko and Ndume that we hope will produce offspring," she said. "If that doesn't happen then Koko may adopt a baby if we find one that needs a mother.

"It would be very exciting if Koko passes on her signing symbols to her baby," she said. "We would love to have a long-term study of that process."

Koko will be 31 when she moves to Maui. A lowland gorilla has lived in captivity to age 54; the oldest female to give birth was 40, said Patterson.

The Maui facility, like the Woodside preserve, will not be open to the public. The presence of strangers on the grounds upsets the male gorillas and scientists try to keep their environment as stress-free as possible.

The Gorilla Foundation -- created in 1976 by Patterson, Dr. Ronald H. Cohn and the late Barbara F. Hiller -- is dedicated to the preservation, protection and propagation of gorillas and other endangered primates. The Maui facility will be larger and more closely represent the gorillas' natural habitat.

"Maui is absolutely the perfect solution to our dream," she said. "Much of the gorilla's natural food, like bananas, will be grown on the site."


Patterson, who is single, has spent 27 years studying primate linguistic abilities, starting as a graduate student at Stanford University. Her study has revealed that gorillas have the intelligence to speak to humans using sign language and to experience emotions similar to humans.

The nonverbal communication Patterson has pioneered and the teaching methods she has developed with Koko and another gorilla, Michael, who died earlier this year, may have applications for reaching autistic children and other people who have difficulty communicating, she said.

The only time Patterson is remotely hurt by Koko is when the ape tickles her "very hard and leaves fingerprints" on her skin.

One of the most striking series of photographs taken of Koko appeared in National Geographic. The great ape is shown cuddling and playing with a kitten.

"Koko held a newborn baby from one of my volunteers," Patterson recalled. "The dad was very nervous, but the volunteer knew her child was perfectly safe. A newborn gorilla weighs only five pounds so they know they have to be careful."

The photo proved wrong the image of gorillas as blood-thirsty, destructive monsters.

"The whole King Kong myth has done them a lot of damage," Patterson said.

So much so that more gorillas are being killed each year than exist in zoos.

In Africa, lowland gorillas are hunted for food, Patterson said.

She refers to Koko in human terms: gentle, angry, sulking, kind, "looking for the perfect man."

She is holding on to hope that the love bug will bite Koko and Ndume.

"Koko very much understands the mating process, but she wants it to be with the man of her dreams," Patternson said. "And she wants to have the family unit she needs to support that relationship."


Koko's not a people gorilla

Gorilla preferences and opinions were taken into consideration during the planning stages of the Gorilla Preserve. The preserve will not be open to the public because Koko and Michael are disturbed by strangers.

Physiological signs of stress include sweating, diarrhea and shaking. Although Koko usually enjoys meeting new people, prolonged visits often end in nervous displays and leave her feeling sad. When questioned about visitors in 1984, Koko made her views very clear:

QUESTION: What sort of visitors do you like?

KOKO: Koko love Tyler.

(Tyler was Michael's male care-giver at this time. Koko liked Tyler a great deal.)

Q: What sort of visitors don't you like?

K: Visitor dirty curious.

Q: Don't like visitors that ask a lot of questions?

K: Frown bad.

Q: They're interested, they want to find out about you.

K: Lip insult.

(Lip is Koko's invented word for woman.)

Q: Like it better if they don't ask a lot of questions?

K: Gorilla love.




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