4 min read

The World's Most Famous Gorilla Just Passed Away

RIP Koko ❤️️

Koko, the gorilla who showed the world that animals feel emotion just as much as humans, died in her sleep on Tuesday. She was 46 years old.

critically endangered western lowland gorilla, she was born at the San Francisco Zoo, but moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains to work with researcher Francine Patterson when she was just 1 year old. Patterson taught Koko American Sign Language (ASL) and helped found The Gorilla Foundation, the organization that cared for Koko for most of her life.

Woman with Koko the gorilla
The Gorilla Foundation

Koko learned over 1,000 signs and understood 2,000 English words, and exhibited self-awareness by recognizing her own reflection in the mirror — and these kinds of achievements shot the gorilla to fame. She graced the cover of magazines and was featured in several documentaries. She met celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and the late Robin Williams.

In 1974, Koko even got her own kitten, All Ball, after asking her caretakers with sign language for a kitten the previous Christmas. Koko was gentle with All Ball, carrying her around like a baby and even trying to nurse her. All Ball sadly passed away, and when caretakers told Koko about the death, she began to whimper and make a hooting noise — a sign that she was grieving.

Gorilla holding kitten
Koko holding her kitten, All Ball | Facebook/Great Apes Survival Partnership

Now the world is mourning the loss of Koko, who helped many people understand that animals communicate and experience emotions in a similar way to humans.

“Koko’s capacity for language and empathy has opened the minds and hearts of millions,” The Gorilla Foundation said in a press release following Koko’s death. “Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world.”

While she broke down barriers, she still faced many of the issues primates do in captivity — she was reportedly overweight, and former caretakers and researchers claim her diet was made up in part of unhealthy human food, along with other welfare issues. Former staffers also reported that she sometimes appeared depressed.

But despite these challenges, Koko’s gentle nature and her legacy of breaking down barriers between people and animals made an impact on the world — and she’ll be missed.

Rest in peace, Koko.

To help save wild gorillas, you can make a donation to Ape Action Africa.