Who is Koko, aside from the hype and hubris you’ll find on the webpages of koko.org?
The language projects of the 1970s remain as controversial today as they were back then, maybe even more so since, with hindsight, we know the tragic fate of the animals who were involved. Even so, I find no one who argues with the proposition that Koko, the gorilla trained to use American Sign Language, is a very intelligent lady. She has been, and continues to be, the source of inspiration for millions.
One noted ape advocate explains it this way: “Koko is the first primate I was drawn to after reading the National Geographic cover article in 1978. [See cover #37] It had never before dawned on my 20-something brain that apes were so intelligent. I am embarrassed about that now, as I know how incredibly smart they are in their own right (not according to human IQ data… just at being who they are). But reading about Koko and her human language skill is one of the things that sparked me into volunteering as a docent and becoming more interested in primates (great apes).”
But while Koko deservedly receives accolades around the world, controversy has swirled around Project Koko and The Gorilla Foundation. For people who are interested in exploring all sides of the issues, here are some resources that I’ve found helpful.
Silent Partners: The Legacy of the Ape Language Experiments, by Eugene Linden (1986), updates the fate of Washoe, Lucy, Nim, and Koko, as of the mid-1980s. Linden had done extensive writing about the language projects and, in fact, co-authored a book with Patterson. He brings personal experience and understanding to the stories of the apes ‒ and people ‒ involved. “To be sure, Penny Patterson is utterly dedicated to Koko, and I cannot imagine circumstances in which Penny would do anything other than devote all her energies to ensuring Koko’s well-being,” he writes. “Nevertheless, over the years Penny and her partner Ron Cohen [sic] have gradually alienated themselves from virtually every institution and person that might help them.”
Koko, the “talking” gorilla is a truly fascinating online essay by Tao Lin. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lin is “the polarizing 28-year-old novelist and poet with a vast online following and a reputation for self-promotion who has turned his daily life into his art.” If this essay is an example of the rest of his work, I think his online following may be vast because he has a very unique insight, and uses a “voice” that is provocative and fun.
Do a quick Google search of Koko, and you are bound to come up with a bunch of articles about Patterson demanding that employees show their breasts to Koko, as related in a 2005 lawsuit by two caregivers who said they were fired because they refused. According to reports, the lawsuit alleged, “On one such occasion, Patterson said, ‘Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples.’” People with more recent insights into the operations at the gorilla trailer compound have explained to me, however, that the lawsuit was about more than that titillating charge. “These caretakers weren't just suing for harassment, but for undesired working conditions that are still the same today,” one person told me. Lisa Sweetingham of Court TV filed a short article, Women: Caretaker of Famous Gorilla Pressured Us to Bare Our Breasts, that describes some of those alleged conditions.
Much can be revealed, and disguised, in a non-profit’s IRS Form 990, which must be made available to anyone who asks. These are the two latest reports from The Gorilla Foundation.IRS Form 990, The Gorilla Foundation, 2010
Chimp Trainer's Daughter posts about the Gorilla Foundation:
HappyBirthday Queen Koko! (July 4, 2012)
Gorilla foundation director pays herself poverty wages (July 6, 2012)
Is that a threat of retaliation I smell? (July 7, 2012)
USDA finds Gorilla Foundation "non-compliance" in veterinary care of Ndume (January 2, 2013)
Cincinnati Zoo abandons old gorilla (March 5, 2013)
Meet Ndume, the feces-flinging gorilla with a heart (March 10, 2013)
The Gorilla Foundation misleads public on African venture (April 12, 2013)
Ape ownership: It's the principle of the thing (May 19, 2013)