Koko the gorilla died last week.
Numerous references are made to the “contributions” Koko gave to our understanding of the emotional lives and intelligence of animals. But, let’s be clear. Koko did not “give” us anything but much was “taken” from her. She had no choice in how her life unfolded. She was an exploited being, just like all captives.
Koko was born in a zoo, taken from her mother and used as a study subject from the time she was one year old. She lived an unnatural life to satisfy human curiosity.
Dr Francine “Penny” Patterson was given access to the young gorilla within Koko’s first year. Dr. Patterson trained Koko to communicate with humans using sign language. Koko and Dr. Patterson became famous and their relationship has been sentimentalized over decades. Indeed, Dr. Patterson has built an entire career on her relationship with Koko. There is some doubt as to whether Koko actually communicated with humans as Dr. Patterson claims she did. Some have said that Koko simply mimicked her human teachers. But, whether Koko actually learned sign language and developed human vocabulary is not the most pertinent issue. Our moral failure in how humans treated Koko and others like her is.
Humanity does not need to imprison an intelligent, emotionally complex being to be taught to speak our language – nor do we have a right to do so. We don’t need to study the behaviour of captive animals through manipulation and control to learn that they are indeed intelligent and emotionally complex. We can learn to understand animals better by observing their own ways of communicating and behaving, as researchers Jane Goodall and Joyce Poole have done. Both have studied animals in their native habitats without invasive techniques as opposed to the arrogant method of imprisoning sentient beings and subjecting them to manipulative lessons and tests.
Animals do not owe it to us to explain their lives to us. And human curiosity does not justify their exploitation.
What has humanity done with the knowledge that apes like Koko and other primates are deeply emotional and similar to us in many ways? Have we taken that knowledge to heart, now understanding that to inflict pain and suffering on them in testing labs, zoos and circuses is immoral? Do we now vigorously protect wild primates from habitat destruction and poaching? Of course not. Apes and other primates are no better off for the sacrifices inflicted on Koko.
A lot has been said and written about the life of Koko, much of it drivel. What is so often missed is her unnatural and lonely existence as a study subject and celebrated attraction.
One article about Koko stands out, a well researched and detailed article written by Dr. Jane C. Hu, Ph.D. Psychology, published in Slate magazine in 2014. This article, titled “What Do Talking Apes Really Tell Us? The strange, disturbing world of Koko the gorilla and Kanzi the bonobo,” tells a much darker story of Koko’s life.
Koko was not the only ape to be used in communication studies. It was a fad for some years, and other primates were also made to live in close relationship with human teachers, but over time this kind of experimentation became less popular.
From the article written by Jane C. Hu:
“Criticisms of ape language studies wore down researchers, and projects fizzled out as the humans in charge lost interest in defending their research, being full-time ape parents, and securing ever-more elusive funding to continue the projects. Even as the research ended, though, the apes remained. Depending on apes’ species and gender, the average lifespan for wild apes is between 30 and 50 years, and they often live even longer in captivity. In their post-research lives, these apes, like child stars that peaked early in life, were left to live out their days in less glamorous environments. Apes have been sent around to various private collections and zoos, and, if lucky, ended up in sanctuaries.”
A former caregiver reported that Koko spent a lot of her time in her small trailer watching TV, hardly as rewarding as a free life would be even with its inherent stresses. Concern was also expressed about the care of a male gorilla named Ndume, who had been brought from the Cincinnati Zoo to impregnate Koko. The two gorillas did not form a mating relationship, and no baby was born. Yet Ndume stayed on, apparently receiving less care and attention than was given to Koko.
More from the attached article:
“In 2012, several former employees told the apes’ issues blogger Forsythe that Ndume had not been receiving proper care for years, and Forsythe sent an email to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services branch of the USDA asking for confirmation that the gorillas were properly cared for. A month later, the USDA reported that certain aspects of Ndume’s care had been neglected, including the fact that he had not been TB tested in more than 20 years. (The USDA recommends gorillas be tested every year.)”
In Koko’s case, it appears that Dr. Patterson was dedicated to Koko in her own way and did express understanding that Koko’s life was not all that it should have been. Perhaps we should not blame Dr. Patterson for Koko’s unnatural life as the researcher was herself young when she took on this project, and the ethical understanding of an appropriate human/animal relationship was not well developed in 1972 when the study began. And, Dr. Patterson did not abandon Koko but provided care for her until Koko’s death.
Nevertheless, if you still believe that there is some great achievement in what was done with and to Koko, Ndume, and others please take the time to read the Slate article, link provided below.
And consider this; numerous people who work in animal sanctuaries, those who rehabilitate and release wild animals, or who rescue and provide for animals in need can explain in great detail how emotionally developed animals are, and how each species has their own unique form of intelligence and communication. Caring people who engage with animals to help them have known this for decades.
So, let’s stop sentimentalizing the life of Koko, but let’s mark her passing.
Koko should have been free. She should have lived among her own kind. Instead she was an experiment.
Koko deserves to be remembered for who she really was, an exploited being made to live in the service of humans. She was provided some pleasures and may have indeed been treated with genuine love, but was denied her true destiny as a mature, free being.
And, let’s resolve to learn from Koko that we are morally required to end all forms of animal captivity. No more animals in zoos. No more animals sent to research. No more wild animals raised by humans instead of their real mothers. Captivity stinks. That’s the lesson we need to learn from Koko.
We can resolve to not let her down. No more exploitation.
Quotes and information sourced from: