Koko, the Talking Gorilla, Gets a Brand-New Kitty, and Primate Fans the World Over Go Ape

updated 04/22/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/22/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

At 38, psychologist Francine "Penny" Patterson has no children and no plans to have any, which makes her something of a rarity in the baby-conscious '80s. "I have," she explains, "al the family I can handle." Indeed: Patterson's "kids" are a pair of lowland gorillas, Koko, 13, and Michael, 12, whom she has been teaching to communicate using American Sign Language (Ameslan). The gorillas so dominate Patterson's life that she feels having children would "cheat" the apes of the attention they need. "They are a continuing responsibility, not like children who grow up and go away," says Patterson. "I will always be with these gorillas. We need more gorillas, not more humans."

It's not that Patterson has anything against humans; it's just that there seem to be plenty of people around who can produce babies, but very few who can produce talking gorillas. Patterson believes she's done it. The experiment began in 1972 when Patterson, then a Stanford grad student, was given access to Koko, an infant gorilla residing in the San Francisco zoo. Inspired by earlier, inconclusive studies with chimpanzees, she began teaching Ameslan to the ape, who soon learned to use the signs for "food," "drink," "dog," "come-gimme," "up," "toothbrush" and "that." Intrigued, Patterson successfully lobbied to bring Koko to Stanford for further tutoring and also acquired Michael, for $24,000, as a fellow student and playmate. Using funds from the Gorilla Foundation, a nonprofit group Patterson formed to finance her experiment, she moved with her gorillas to a secluded 6½-acre site 40 miles south of San Francisco in 1979.

The results have been simultaneously tantalizing, charming and controversial. According to Patterson, Koko now has a working vocabulary of more than 600 words, which means that she knows 600 Ameslan signs she uses at least 14 times a month. Michael, who hasn't been at it as long, has a vocabulary of 250 signs. Each day Patterson, biologist Ronald Cohn, 41, with whom she lives, and some of the Gorilla Foundation's 50 volunteers lead the apes through daily recreation, instruction, quizzes and conversation. The apes, says Patterson, use signs spontaneously and appropriately—to each other, their instructors and even reporters.

When a PEOPLE correspondent visited, Koko took a long look at the stranger's hands and signed "wants me red red nail polish Koko love." Koko then asked if the reporter had a gold tooth—one of her instructors has one—and pointed out the gold ring and earrings the reporter was wearing. One day, when a nearby fowl was squawking loudly, Koko signed "rotten bird"; when Michael comes over to her cage for a visit—he first must ask permission—the two make signs about food or sex ("Tickle bottom" is a typical Koko request).

Last year, after asking for a kitten, Koko was given a tailless Manx and named him All Ball. The cat was run over by a car last December, and when Koko was told in sign, "She gave a gorilla cry and later signed 'sad,' " says Patterson. Three weeks ago she was given another Manx kitten, which she hasn't yet named but calls "baby." It's tempting to think of Koko as almost human, but even she doesn't go that far. Asked not long ago if she was an animal or a person, Koko reportedly replied, "fine animal gorilla."

Koko's abilities sound almost too remarkable to be true, and some scientists dispute the idea that the ape can communicate in human language at all. Thomas Sebeok, a linguistics expert and one of Patterson's former professors at Indiana University, rejects the notion that Koko has any idea what she's doing. "There are absolutely no species besides humans who have language capability," he says. Other researchers are intrigued by Koko but want to see more hard data. "The experiment is terrifically exciting," says Robert Seyfarth, an assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA, "but Patterson really hasn't published enough about it in scientific journals. She really hasn't put it in an open forum." Patterson, who wrote often about the project during its first few years, says she hasn't published as much lately simply because she lacks the time and money to do it properly. "I get very annoyed when people make comments like that," she says. "Funding agencies listen to these people and then we have no access to grants. People don't realize how much is involved in processing data. It can take an hour to analyze one minute of Koko's talking. If I had adequate funding we would have a lot to publish."

Koko seems unconcerned by the flap. In the 1,450-square-foot gorilla home she shares with Michael, she plays with her kitten, struggles with new lessons (she has made up two new signs recently—for "scarf" and "shoulder purse") and daydreams, perhaps about one of her favorite treats, a ride in Patterson's car. When the pair lived at Stanford, Koko would climb into Penny's red Datsun and point the way to her favorite destination, a campus soda machine. Once there she'd get out of the car, deposit a quarter in the machine, pick up her drink and head back to the sedan. Some students, who'd seen the routine often, became blasé, but there were always a few newcomers who stood and gaped.

Fine animal, gorilla.

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