Hanabiko “Koko,” the gorilla who mastered sign language and taught the world a profound amount about the emotional capacity and cognitive abilities of gorillas, died June 19. The 46-year-old western lowland gorilla passed away in her sleep at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in California’s Sana Cruz mountains.
At the preserve Koko met and interacted with a variety of celebrities, including Robin Williams, Fred Rogers, Betty White, and Leonardo DiCaprio. She appeared in many documentaries, on two National Geographic covers, and was also featured in Playboy magazine.
Robert Crane, son of the late actor Bob Crane (“Hogan’s Heroes”), interviewed Koko in Playboy‘s December 1986 issue. In his book, Crane: Sex, Celebrity, and My Father’s Unsolved Murder, Robert Crane reveals the backstory of how his interview with the beloved gorilla came about. Here is an excerpt:
Like most people who had read Dian Fossey’s courageous and moving memoir, Gorillas in the Mist, the closest I’d ever been to a real gorilla was sitting in a movie theater watching Sigourney Weaver’s inspired performance in the film of Fossey’s life in the Virunga Mountains. But now I was proposing a sit-down, face-to-face interview with a gorilla for the world leading men’s magazine. How would Hefner react to having an ape, gorilla gorilla graueri, grace the pages of Playboy? Rezek shockingly gave me the go-ahead. He was clearly taking a chance but a successful roll of the dice could pay off big in terms of publicity for Playboy.
Dr. Penny Patterson was the director of The Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, and it sounded like she dropped the phone when I requested an interview with Koko, not for Scientific American, but for the legendary publication with a bunny for a logo.
“Are you serious?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” I answered. “This piece will introduce Koko to a whole new audience—an audience with lots of disposable income for donations to research foundations.”
“You know we’re located in the mountains west of Palo Alto.”
“I do. In fact, I think one of your neighbors is Neil Young,” I said, showing my fondness for research.
“Yes,” said the slightly befuddled Patterson. “How much time would you need? We’re trying to mate Koko with Michael and it’s not going well, so, I don’t want to bother her for too long.”
“An hour and half, tops,” I said, adding, “Koko will enjoy the challenge of the questions. We’ll need an original photo of her, but nothing too racy.”
“Let me run this by my partner.” Dr. Patterson sounded both surprised and intrigued by my proposal. She would discuss the matter with fellow gorilla researcher Dr. Ron Cohn, who, it turned out, also happened to be her mate.
[. . .]
Penny Patterson was Koko’s teacher and interpreter in American Sign Language and that aspect of the study was going quite well. Koko was the most celebrated gorilla in the world because she was the first to use any kind of human language. The interview would go like this: I would ask a question, and Dr. Patterson, using ASL, would sign it to Koko, who would then ponder the question for a bit, sign an answer back to the doctor who would then translate it for me.
In my introduction to the piece in the magazine I wrote, “Koko, 15 years old and 230 pounds, sat poised and ready in her open-air living area. She looked me in the eye and, using American Sign Language, commanded, ‘Show me your teeth,’ which I respectfully did. She was delighted by the enormous amount of gold and silver in my mouth. Her mate, Michael, 13 and 350 pounds, who shares quarters with her, never looked me in the eye—something to do with the fact that I was a stranger and a male.” During the questioning, I would occasionally glance at Michael who would instantly look away. At other times, when I looked away, I could feel Michael’s stare boring a hole in me. I asked Koko about her boyfriend.
“Koko, do you think Michael is cute?”
Koko responded, signing with both hands for emphasis. “Cute, sweet, good.”
“What’s the difference between boys and girls?” I asked.
“Corn there good,” Koko replied, meaning she gets a corn treat because her floor is clean, whereas Michael doesn’t because his is dirty. She added, “Girl people,” since she thought of herself as a person and Michael as an animal.
[. . .]
“Koko, what do you want for your birthday?”
My time with Koko flew by. I asked her about being interviewed.
“What do you say when you’re tired of being asked questions?”
“Gorilla teeth. Finished.”
The interview was over. I thanked Koko for her well thought-out responses and for her time. I looked at Michael once more and he quickly turned away.
Weeks later, Dr. Cohn shot a glamorous Koko against a red background for the interview’s accompanying full-page illustration. Oh, and for those with a more prurient interest in gorilla hook-ups, Koko and Michael never did successfully get together. Nonetheless, it was a brilliant day in that mountain community, replete with new smells, serious behavioral researchers, and a delightful ape who used communication skills taught to her by humans, but who thought enough of our kind to give us a glimpse into the mind of a gorilla.
On my flight back to Los Angeles, I smiled with amazement and elation as I recounted having been in such close proximity to such an intelligent and majestic animal. At the same time it was all a bit melancholy knowing that Koko, as pampered as her world was, would never spend two minutes in her wild, natural habitat.