HOME   |   ABOUT   |   FORUM  |   BLOG   |   F.A.Q.'s   |   PODCAST   |   STORE   |   DONATE

Thirty Years of Project Koko

AUTHOR: Francine G.P. Patterson and Wendy Gordon
DATE: Spring 2003


The Gorilla Foundation mourns the loss of Fred Rogers (TVs Mister Rogers), who passed away on February 28, 2003. Mister Rogers was a friend and mentor to children for several decades. Koko was one of those "children" who watched Mister Rogers' Neighborhood regularly on TV and admired him greatly. To learn more about their friendship and Mister Rogers visit to "Koko's Neighborhood" in 1998, please visit our web site,

Imagine that you are a gorilla hunter. You earn your living and support your family through the illegal but lucrative killing of gorillas, chimpanzees, and other endangered species for the commercial bushmeat trade. Gorillas are large animals, your customers are willing to pay premium prices for their meat, and your attitude is: "Why should I not shoot these animals? They're meat." "Why should I feel bad for a gorilla? He is just a stupid animal." Then imagine you learn more about one individual gorilla.

She communicates using sign language, with a vocabulary of some 1,000 words. She also understands spoken English and often carries on "bilingual" conversations responding in Sign to questions asked in English. She is learning the letters of the alphabet and can read some printed words including her own name. She uses a computer. She has achieved scores between 85 and 95 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.

She demonstrates self-awareness by engaging in self-directed behaviors in front of a mirror, such as making faces or examining her teeth, and by her appropriate use of self-descriptive language. She lies to avoid the consequences of her own misbehavior and anticipates others' responses to her actions. She engages in imaginary play, both alone and with others. She has produced representational paintings and drawings. She remembers and can talk about past events in her life. She understands and has appropriately used time-related words such as before, after, later, and yesterday.

She laughs at her own jokes and those of others. She cries when hurt or left alone, screams when frightened or angered. She talks about her feelings, using words such as happy, sad, afraid, enjoy, eager, frustrate, mad, shame, and most frequently, love. She grieves for those she has lost -- a favorite cat that has died, a friend who has gone away. She can talk about what happens when one dies, but she becomes fidgety and uncomfortable when asked to discuss her own death or the death of her companions. She displays a wonderful gentleness with kittens and other small animals. She has even expressed empathy for others seen only in pictures.

You then learn that this individual is Koko, a female western lowland gorilla, the same species as the gorillas you have been hunting. Does your new knowledge of her change your attitude about hunting gorillas? In at least one case so far, an introduction to Koko through books and photos has already had a profound effect on one former gorilla hunter.

For 30 years, Project Koko has been helping to answer questions about language, cognition, self-awareness, and the biological basis of behavior both in great apes and humans. Project Koko began in July 1972 when Koko was one year old. The original questions were: Can a gorilla master the basics of symbolic communication at least as well as chimpanzees, and what might be the limits of this newly discovered symbolic ability in apes?



We are also exploring additional ways we can use Koko's special appeal to help educate the world about gorillas and encourage their conservation. There are a number of things we can do that do that do not directly impact Kuko herself or disrupt her daily life in any way. Our Internet website is one way that we have been able to share Koko's personality and accomplishments with the world.

In April 1998, Koko made an even more direct use of the Internet. The Internet service provider America Online (AOL) hosted a unique chat session with Koko (the text of this chat is available on the website which received a great deal of media attention both before and after, and was attended by tens of thousands of people from all over the world. Ron Cohn videotaped while one of us (Dr. Patterson) asked Koko the questions as they were relayed by phone. From Koko's perspective, the Internet chat session simply required her to spend about an hour of quality time with the two people who raised her. But the thousands of email messages we received in the next few days revealed just how wide an audience Koko was able to reach through this medium. There were messages from around the world including Russia, Finland, Germany, England, Thailand, Japan, Australia, Holland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Argentina, and Malaysia.

Koko reached out to another different segment of the human population on July 28, 1998 when she was featured in an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,. a popular children's show on public television. The audience for this program consists primarily of young children and their parents and caregivers. Koko thoroughly enjoyed her videotaping session with Fred Rogers, host of the show. She spent well over an hour gently leading him around her room, hugging and grooming him, removing his trademark cardigan and his shoes, and demonstrating her ability to use the VariOUS props that he brought: a harmonica, a camera, a hat, and a beach towel with cats on it. When the suggested "script" called for a game of peek-a-boo with the towel, Koko readily participated, even for several retakes.

The theme of the episode was inclusion of those who are different. With Koko as the featured guest on the show, this can be interpreted as the inclusion of gorillas (and by extension, other nonhumans) in the category of sentient beings whose individual lives matter. The images of Koko with Mister Rogers, like the images ofher cradling tiny kittens, have had an impact on viewers young and old.


Koko's unique relationship with humans and other animals elicits a strong emotional reaction and encourages people to identify with her. It is our hope that for at least some of those people, identification will be translated into action on behalf of her entire species and all the great apes.

As Tony Rose points out, we humans are tribal primates when it comes to taking action for conservation. It is the individuals we count as our close kin who come first with us. We must therefore do everything within our means to promote a very personal one-to-one connection with gorillas. To date, we have made use of the following to achieve this: stories, photos, and gorilla conversations in our semi-annual journals; personal replies to letters from the public; photos and biographies of our gorillas; examples of their artwork on our Internet web page; two AOL online chats with Koko; 1999 NATURE documentary: "A Conversation with Koko;" Koko's appearances on popular television shows; a unique TV public service spot in which Koko herself asked viewers to "help" gorillas; publications such as Koko's Kitten aimed at a general audience; and the ongoing free distribution of material s about gorillas for teachers and school children.

Our next projects include establishing a visitor center open to the public as an adjunct to our gorilla sanctuary on Maui, inclusion of a "Koko Cam" live video feed on our Internet website, and licensing of various "Koko" products from dolls to software. Perhaps most importantly, we are stepping up our free distribution of Koko's Kitten (including the French-language edition) throughout Africa. Another book, Michael's Dream, authored by Tony Rose and describing the gorilla Michael's haunting recollection of his mother's death to poachers, is planned for publication and distribution in Africa as well.

With Koko as the charismatic ambassador for her species helping to bridge the diminishing gap between human and gorilla, perhaps it will not be too late to stop the slaughter of the apes and ensure a future for these beings who truly are our kin.


This site is best viewed using the most current version of Google Chrome.
Content copyright © The Fred Rogers Company. Used with permission.
Corner image by Spencer Fruhling. Used with permission.
Do not duplicate or distribute any material from this site without the consent of The Fred Rogers Company.