Mountain Gorilla Selfie Star Ndakasi Dies

The Mountain Gorilla Who Became the Selfie Star

Koko the gorilla bursts into tears when she sees a photo of herself, taken 40 years ago. Her caretaker asks: Why does Koko cry when you show her that old picture? You look ugly! And Koko replies: Old. Me cry.

This poignant scene is captured in the 2015 documentary “Koko – The Gorilla Who Talks.” The film tells how Koko responded to news that an elderly female caregiver was dying of cancer by crawling into bed with her and trying to nurse her. Koko held on to Elizabeth’s hand for hours after she died, refusing to leave her side. It would be hard not to see this as anything other than a display of love and empathy.

Koko’s capacity for empathy is legendary; she even comforts people on the telephone. She is also capable of expressing frustration, as demonstrated in another scene from her youth: frustrated with her trainer Penny Patterson for not allowing her to keep a kitten, Koko rips up some of Penny’s photographs – an act reminiscent of the destructive tantrums of a two-year-old child. But at age 42, Koko still has problems with impulse control – such as grabbing cameras off their tripods and pointing them at herself. As we see in “Koko – The Gorilla Who Talks,” this remarkable creature was born July 4, 1971 in San Francisco Zoo, where Penny Patterson was then working. Within three months, Koko responded to Penny’s request for a “yes” by touching her own nose, and soon had mastered the signs for “food,” “drink” and “more.” Seven months after they met, Koko had taught herself how to sign more than 200 words in American Sign Language (ASL) .

   Koko’s abilities are now legendary. When Penny Patterson told her to “act pretty,” Koko brushed her hair aside with one hand, pouted her lips and asked for a mirror. The 1988 movie “Koko – A Talking Gorilla” shows Koko the child-woman touching an ugly picture of herself, then looking sad; it is clear that she knows she’s being made fun of.

Like many children who have been deprived of human contact in early infancy, Koko has had issues with anger control through most of her life. At age 18, she attacked one of Penny Patterson’s friends after he teased her by pretending to take some food away from her . She also became very when any woman wore perfume , because she associated the scent with the fear and pain of being captured. She doesn’t have these tantrums anymore, but her emotional development was halted when she was a child, and she is still a child emotionally .

The average gestational period for a gorilla is 9 months , so in natural circumstances, Koko would have been weaned from her mother at age three or four. She never saw another gorilla until Roger Patterson came along in 1972. When Roger’s presence became frightening to her, Penny stopped visiting each evening; instead, she recorded videotaped visits after work hours which Koko could view at will.

With this kind of enrichment – both physical and mental – Koko has lived half as long as most gorillas in captivity. She has been taught to brush her teeth, use a microwave oven and sign ASL. Her vocabulary now includes more than 1,000 words: she can describe people’s appearance (e.g., color of hair and type of clothing) and the names of many objects. With some help from Penny Patterson, Koko has also learned how to communicate typewritten messages – even though gorillas lack opposable thumbs that would enable them to type with their fingers .

Over time, as we see in “Koko – The Gorilla Who Talks,” this remarkable creature has mastered hundreds of signs; but it should be noted that Penny Patterson tones down or cuts out those scenes where Koko gives less-than-satisfactory answers to the questions Penny poses to her. In a 1981 television interview, for example, Koko showed a marked lack of interest when asked about her biological father’s size and appearance .

After Koko turned 13 in 1984, Penny Patterson stopped taking her out in public because she had grown too large and unpredictable. She was fitted with a special harness that enabled Penny to take her outside on leashes. Today she weighs 250 pounds and is very powerful; thus it’s no longer safe for anyone but experienced trainers like Ron Cohn to work with her.