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Koko (full name Hanabi-Ko, Japanese for 'Fireworks Child', because she was born on 4 July) is a female gorilla born in San Francisco Zoo in 1971. She was a rather sickly youngster and was 'adopted' by Dr Frances Patterson (known as Penny) who, having encountered a similar project involving a chimpanzee, decided to teach the gorilla American Sign Language a project that was to become her life's work. By 1985 Koko had a vocabulary of some 500 words and used over a hundred different ones each day.
Just before her 12th birthday she always had a party Penny asked Koko what she would like as a gift; she replied 'cat'. That wasn't too surprising; she had had stories read to her for years, and her favourites were Puss in Boots and Three Little Kittens. Cat picture books were her favourites, other than ones with pictures of gorillas. A sturdy toy cat was ordered, but didn't arrive in time, so was saved for Christmas. But when it was given to Koko she didn't like it at all and refused to have anything to do with it. She wanted a real cat a pet.
About six months later three kittens were brought in, having been abandoned by their mother and raised by a Cairn terrier dog. They were shown to Koko and her preference was for a tailless tabby possibly because gorillas don't have tails either. After another visit a few days later the preference was confirmed and the kitten, after staying overnight, became a permanent resident of Penny's quarters, which were quite close to Koko's enclosure. While living with Penny, the kitten was taken to visit the gorilla each evening: and Koko named him All Ball. Later he began to visit Koko on his own, and despite Penny's apprehension and the fact that All Ball could be quite aggressive, Koko was always gentle with him and seemed to love him despite his unruly nature. 'Koko love Ball,' she signed. She treated him as her baby, carrying him on her back as she would a gorilla baby, combing and petting him and keeping him clean. She tried to teach him gorilla games, but All Ball didn't understand them; nevertheless he received plenty of warmth, affection and attention.
One foggy morning in December 1984 All Ball was run over by a car and died instantly, having escaped from the gorilla enclosure; he was only a few months old. Koko was told straight away that she wouldn't see him again, and was distressed. News of the tragedy spread quickly, and thousands of people sent letters, cards, photos and pictures. Everyone felt that Koko should have a new kitten, ideally for the approaching Christmas.
That proved much more difficult than expected, as not many kittens were around in winter, especially Manx ones, which is what Koko had indicated she would like again. Eventually a breeder of Manx cats heard about the quest and called around his contacts until he located a litter in Southern California. There was a further delay, but eventually the kitten was ready and was delivered one day in March 1985. He was a red tabby; red is Koko's favourite colour and she was delighted with him! She named him Lipstick (pictured left).
I don't know how long Lipstick was with Koko or what became of him, but at some point there was a third kitten called Smoky (right).
From 1976 Koko had a companion of her own species, called Michael, two years younger and like a brother to her; sadly he died in April 2000 from a cardiovascular disease common in male gorillas. A third gorilla, Ndume, was obtained by the Gorilla Foundation in 1991 and was a potential partner for Koko, but this never came about although they became good friends. To help in the preservation of gorillas, a reserve was planned in West Maui, Hawaii, on land set aside in 1996, so that Koko and her friends could move to a location with climate similar to their natural habitat and free from the risk of poaching and human encroachment. However in 2013 it seems that funds to purchase the land and set up the reserve are still lacking.
Note: Koko was not the first gorilla to have a feline pet. Toto (1931-1968) was a gorilla adopted and raised very much like a human child. Mrs A. Maria Hoyt adopted the baby female gorilla, which had been orphaned by a hunt in French Equatorial Africa in 1931. Mrs Hoyt moved to Cuba to provide a more tropical home for Toto. At the age of four or five, Toto adopted a kitten named Principe, carrying the kitten with her everywhere.
It seems that the plan to move Koko to Hawaii never materialised. She remained at the Gorilla Foundation reserve near Santa Cruz, California, and in June 2018 she died there in her sleep at the age of 46. She had mastered well over 1000 words in sign language, and understood many more but despite a number of efforts at providing her with a mate, she never achieved her greatest wish, which was to become a mother. She was buried next to her former companion Michael at the Foundation's preserve at Woodside, California. There's a comprehensive account of her life at the Mail Online. Ndume survives her.
The account of Koko is summarised from Koko's Kitten by Dr Francine Patterson, with photos by Dr Ronald H. Cohn,
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Our featured feline at the head of the page, and your companion through Feline Fragments, is Maggie. She came as a kitten from Powys Cat Rescue. One of their volunteers had seen her wandering around, apparently uncared for, and thought her rather young to be just left to roam. The person 'responsible' for her said she 'didn't care', and so the youngster was taken in for rehoming. Only about 4 months old when I brought her home in 2003, she was a self-assured soul, probably because of her early experience, and was soon climbing all the available trees in the garden. She was a determined hunter in her earlier days, and was usually outside, but now prefers snoozing unless the weather is good. She has superb whiskers and as the photo shows, loves getting into things! (see it here without the puzzle effect)
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