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Koko : The gorilla who talks to people.

  • Taylor, Jonathan
  • Videos

About this work


Koko, a West Lowland gorilla, lives in California in the US. In the 1970s, Penny (Francine) Patterson began to teach Koko sign language for her Phd. Over the course of 44 years an intense bond has been forged between Patterson and Koko. However, the controversy around how developed the consciousness of an animal can be still endures. The BBC is granted unprecedented access to Koko and the photographic and cinematic archive. At the time of the documentary, Koko's carers are preparing for Koko's 44nd birthday (she was born in 1971). Ronald Cohn who has documented Koko for 44 years originally met Penny at Stanford University; he describes their meeting. Although it has proved impossible to teach primates language, the work of R. Allen Gardner and Beatrice T. Gardner teaching a chimpaneze sign language was inspirational. Koko was very ill at six months old and had to be separated from her mother; six months later Patterson encountered Koko again and forged a relationship with her. She taught her three words initially; Koko proved highly trainable and intelligent. In the present, a team of volunteers and care assistants prepare her food, put on her favourite DVDs and wrap up her birthday presents - this is funded by public donations. Patterson visits Koko daily. Usually only Patterson and Cohn enter Koko's enclosure. Koko asks to meet the film crew (who look nervous). In 1974 Patterson reached an agreement with the zoo and brought Koko to Stanford University where her language skills became further developed. Dale Djerassi, a former student at Stanford, met Patterson and Koko and invited them to live on his ranch - this was Koko's first taste of unfettered freedom. It became clear that the bond between Patterson and Koko was like mother and child which has endured over the years. However, Koko was still the property of San Francisco zoo; the new zoo director, Saul Kitchener, asked for her to be returned to be part of a breeding programme. Patterson fought hard to retain her. George Moscone, the mayor, was in a position to help with the negotiations. There was a hitch; they had to acquire a male gorilla from before stringent capture and import rules were put in place to protect endangered species. Michael was acquired from Austria from money they raised and introduced to Koko; archive footage shows their initial playful encounters. Patterson set up the Gorilla Foundation which meant that Koko and Michael could be cared for. Patterson talks about her upbringing; she has several siblings and cared for her mother when she had cancer. Koko's fame grew as a consequence of being on the front page of National Geographic. Soon after, Patterson published her PhD. Behavioural scientists were not so convinced; Professor Herbert Terrace, lead scientist, Project Nim, conducted a study on teaching sign language to a chimpanzee and was similarly convinced of their ability, but then later observed that the researchers provided so many visual prompts to invalidate the science. Project Koko continued after Patterson's tenure at Stanford ended. Studying gorillas in the wild, it has been discovered that they use signing to communicate with each other. The public's imagination was captured when a photograph of Koko with a kitten was published on the cover of National Geographic. This was turned into a book for children. Koko became an ambassador for the species and gained funding from the media coverage. Koko never mated with Michael as she considered him to be her brother. In 1991, another male was found, Ndume. They meet, but have never mated. Michael died. Patterson regrets tearfully that Koko has never had a baby. A few television news clips demonstrate that public opinion is changing regarding whether apes have rights.



Physical description

1 DVD (59 min.) : sound, colour ; 12 cm


Originally broadcast on 15th June 2016 on BBC 1.

Creator/production credits

Filmed and directed by Jonathan Taylor. A BBC Co-Production with PBS 2015.
Narrated by Bertie Carvel.

Copyright note

BBC Science Production.



  • English

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