Glanton: Koko’s lessons for humanity

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Koko, the signing gorilla, made me uncomfortable.

She was too intelligent, too intuitive, too human. I was wary of her, yet in awe of her.

What disturbed me most is what Koko represented. She was the antithesis of my Protestant upbringing. It was impossible to read about her or watch videos of her and not wonder whether the human species had evolved from primates like her.

For someone with a Southern Baptist background such as mine, the concept of evolution goes against everything we were taught about man’s creation from the moment we were old enough to attend Sunday school.

While life has taken me further away from my religious roots than others in my family, there are some topics that simply are not debatable as far as the elders are concerned. Evolution versus creationism is one of them.

But aside from the issues of science and theology, Koko was a phenomenon that could not be ignored. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, she was a gift to humanity, and anyone who paid attention could have learned volumes from her.

Koko was a great communicator, a student of the world and an extraordinary teacher.

She was much smarter than some people I know. She could do things that other animals could not. Heck, she could do things most people could not.

When she was just a year old, Koko began learning sign language. She became so proficient at it that she was once able to communicate that her mouth hurt and let a doctor know how painful it was on a scale of one to 10.

I still have trouble figuring out how to answer that when my doctor asks.

Though she was not the only animal that has learned to sign, Koko’s extensive vocabulary — more than 1,000 signs and 2,000 words developed over her 46 years — helped to make her, by far, the most famous.

It is ironic that this wise western lowland gorilla born on Independence Day would die in her sleep during a week when America was at one of its lowest points. At a time when our nation seemed void of compassion, the death of a gorilla that was loved throughout the world reminded us of the importance of empathy.

Koko knew how to communicate with those who were different than her. She cared about others, and she showed it openly. Simply by being herself, she forced us to think about things in a way we never had.

Though she was surrounded by human love, she longed for a gorilla family. She often “talked” to her handler and close friend, Penny Patterson, about longing to have a baby. When she could not conceive, she adopted kittens.

Not only did Koko give us insight into ourselves, she was the primary ambassador for all gorillas, prompting us to see them not just as apes, but also as gentle and caring individuals with the capacity to learn, communicate with us and grieve for us.

Koko had a rare capacity to connect with people. She captivated us with her inherent ability to receive and return affection, her capacity for nurturing and her empathy in times of tragedy.

These are qualities that would benefit every human being.

When I learned of Koko’s death, I felt a deep sense of loss. I never met Koko, though she was near the top of the list of “celebrities” I would have most liked to have lunch with.

I wanted to talk with her and laugh with her, the way actor Robin Williams did when he visited her home at the Gorilla Foundation in 2001. She seemed to take a liking to him quickly, having watched one of his movies prior to his arrival.

Death was not a stranger to Koko. When one of her pet kittens was struck and killed by a car, she whimpered with grief and talked about the death for several days. Her close companion, a male gorilla named Michael, had died, too. She didn’t smile again for six months — until Williams came to visit.

When she learned of the actor’s suicide in 2014, she mourned, signing to Patterson, “Cry Lip.” (Lip was Koko’s sign for woman.) At the end of the day, she became very somber, with her head bowed and her lip quivering, according to the foundation.

She seemed to know that her own death was near, too. Koko seemed to say as much in her last conversation with Patterson.

“She was looking a little sad and worried, and she looked straight at me and held two signs,” Patterson told ABC News. “One was ‘patient’ and the second one was ‘old.’ So she was trying to explain, ‘Hey, I’m getting on.’ ”

Koko seemed to understand that life is only temporary, and she was determined to live hers to the fullest.

This gorilla was an excellent example of what it means to be an exceptional human being, regardless of how we got here.

Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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