Sunday, June 24, 2007


I just found out from the site that Koko's best friend Michael died, all of seven years ago, and I knew nothing about it. I'd been looking for information on how things were going with him and Koko. He was only 27 years old.

For those who didn't grow up with Koko, she is a gorilla who was trained from an early age in sign language. If she were human, she would have been in my class in school, born just a few months after me. I heard about her for the first time when I was in grade school, probably when the story first aired about the amazing ape who could talk to people. The usual naysayers delivered the usual opinions to the contrary: 'learned by rote...' 'just aping the researchers, har har,' but it was clear to me, even at that age, how alarmingly close to human Koko was. She had strong attachments, to people and to other animals - she seemed to understood abstract concepts, like love and grief, and even angst, and to be able to communicate about them. Koko had a kitten that she adored. She called him "All Ball," because of the way he looked, curled up, sleeping. Her description of him? "All Ball cat. Tiger cat. Koko love."

Koko was 2 years old when Michael came on the scene. Koko's affection for All Ball had spawned an interest in babies, and when she told the researchers that she wanted to be a mother, they set to work, like a highly-educated gorilla dating service. They rounded up photos and profiles of all the likely unmated captive male gorillas and showed them to Koko. Koko's response was unequivocal. Michael was The One.

I remember wondering at the time just what exactly had made Michael so much more appealing to Koko than all those other gorillas. Today, seeing the picture of Michael on his memorial page, it dawned on me for the first time that, by god, Michael was a really handsome gorilla.

The researchers sent away for Michael, and everyone waited with high hopes, especially Koko. Once he arrived, it didn't take long for excitement to turn to dismay. Koko didn't seem to know how to approach Michael, and Michael was not helping any. You could see on her face, as she cased Michael's pen, that something about this whole situation just seemed wrong - not what she'd expected at all. This was so much like my own experience with online dating that I wanted to give her a call, but I'm not sure what I would have told her. Imagine that you had only one shot - you had to pick out a guy from a picture, and you were so young and clueless that you just automatically picked the cutest one. What if he turned up, completely out of the loop on the marvelous family-building plan you and the researchers had concocted, and you suddenly realized this person was a total stranger.

The whole situation completely fascinated me. It was so complicated. Human beings tend to assume that animals are less discriminating than we are when it comes to choosing mates - that bad plumage or conformation will queer the deal, but not personal differences. Clearly, in this situation, though Koko seemed reasonably nice looking and Michael was kind of a hot gorilla, and they both were the only game in town, neither of them could stomach it. They preferred to do without. Proximity did lead to friendship eventually, however. On Koko's web site, Michael is listed as her best friend, more beloved than the researchers, or the other gorilla later introduced to the family.

Michael had an artistic streak. There's a clear difference between paintings made by him and those made by Koko. Michael's paintings have a great sense of energy and movement. One of them, which he named "Apple Chase" is supposed to depict a chasing game he liked to play with a pet dog. You can see the dog, all black and white patches in a blur of motion. 'Chase' was one of his favorite words. When asked by the researchers what he thought of visitors, he replied, succinctly, "Chase chase squash hit-in-mouth." Both he and Koko seemed to think visitors' interest in them was prurient.

Koko lived, as friends, with Michael for almost 30 years. I can't even imagine how lonely she must be without him.


Many people know how upset Koko was over the loss of her kitten, All Ball. To describe her sorrow, she would often use the signs for "sad" and "frown." Her grief for Mike is much deeper, and she sometimes seems inconsolable. Following Mike's death, Koko has expressed her grief with the words "sorry" and "cry." For example, she held up one of Mike's blankets, looked at Penny and signed "Sorry." Three weeks after Mike's death, Penny's sister visited Koko. When she asked Koko how she was feeling, Koko replied "Cry."

In one conversation Penny had with Koko soon after Mike's death, Penny called Koko an "angel" as she sat near Koko who was in her room at bedtime. (Koko and Mike shared the same structure but had separate rooms.) Penny continued, "Angel in blue room (Koko's room), and "Angel in this room" (indicating Mike's room). Koko signed, "Imagine."


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