I’m On Team Koko

When I have a zoological question, I turn, as anyone would turn, to the Crash Test Dummies. Their thoughts on some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom:

“But Clark Kent, now there was a real gent
He would not be caught sittin’ around in no jungle scape
Dumb as an ape doing nothing”

Uh. Wait. I love me some Superman, don’t get me wrong. But this smacks a little of judgment, doesn’t it? What do you have to say for yourselves, you human-centric jerks?

“Mmmmmmmmmmmmm mmm mmmmm.”

Thanks for clearing that up.

Maybe Clark Kent would rather not be another dumb ape sitting around, bored and waiting for his next meal or death, whichever came first. But maybe a gorilla would rather not do that, either. And maybe that gorilla would actually have more to say on the subject than an alternative folk band from Canada. That is especially true if that gorilla is the famous Koko.

Maybe you’ve heard of her. Maybe, like me, you grew up getting your literary fix through LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow, where he might have told you all about “Koko’s Kitten,” the adorable story of the time Koko adopted a pet which she adorably named All Ball (I die). But maybe LeVar advised you to not take his word for it. For this week’s love, I took Koko’s word for it.

Koko has been on my radar since seeing that episode of Reading Rainbow, and whenever I heard a news story about her, a gorilla-sized feeling would often well up in my heart. It’s a hard thing to describe—maybe a hybrid of affection and wonder. Is that ridiculous, to love the subject of an experiment in science and linguistics? Maybe. But I’m ridiculous. Sue me.

A love of animals might run in my family—my mom adored horses, and I share genes with plenty of lifetime subscribers to Dog Fancy. It’s possible that loving animas is a trait of the human family, and in the most forgivable form of narcissism we are drawn to things that remind of us ourselves. It used to draw crowds for amusement and for money, with acts like Clever Hans, the horse who could do simple arithmetic (don’t get too excited—it was a scam and he was being cued by his handler). If we got all riled up over an animal that knew its numbers, it’s no surprise that an animal that can communicate with us would make us just about lose our minds.

There are less inspiring examples of talking animals, of course.

This movie is real. And I think it's on Netflix. And I think you're going to hatewatch it tonight.

This movie is real. And I think it’s on Netflix. And I think you’re going to hatewatch it tonight.

I used to own a Disney sing-a-long tape with a bunch of weird songs taken out of their context from weird movies, one of which was the jaunty “You Are a Human Animal.” I followed the bouncing dot carefully as it traipsed over the lyrics you are the only animal who can think, who can reason, who can read. It was a song to make us feel special, because we were just kids. But that song was written by people who wanted to feel special because they were just humans—the superbeings with dominion over the animal kingdom.

Dominion is a powerful simplifier that makes terrible things seem forgivable. I’m not a vegan or even a vegetarian or even a very ethical eater, but I totally get how much easier it makes enjoying a steak or duck con fit when you figure you’re just eating a stupid animal who didn’t really feel anything beyond nature’s urges to eat and to breed. And when we are superior to a thing, it becomes apparent that it’s there for our use—to satisfy our own urge to eat. Duck con fit would be harder to swallow if a duck could sit at my table and sign what it felt like to see me to eat its lifelong mate. (Harder, but not impossible—what I lack in heart I make up for in appetite. I am who I am. And I am horrible sometimes.)

This dude in the documentary Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978), which I watched this week, raised that question of dominion and exploitation. Do animals emote? Do they remember? Do they have opinions? Do they feel love and joy and gratitude? Are they capable of kindness, of empathy?

In Koko’s case, the answers appear to be yes. She can respond in sign language to speech, which would suggest she understands spoken language. She can invent signs for things she doesn’t quite know how to describe (for example calling a ring a “finger bracelet,” and creating compound words like your average German person). But there are doubters, who would point out that articles about Koko mostly appear in popular magazines rather than scholarly journals, and that her language skills might have been ingrained in her because she had been rewarded with sweets all along the way.

I believe in Koko. I believe that she feels things that most of us have felt, and in the most noble dip into the pool of my own narcissism, there are some parts of myself I recognize in her, and they compel my beliefs. Here are a handful in no particular order.

When Andy/Koko are tired from learning but have to clean their room, they flip out. Koko, who responded to Penny’s emotions by mirroring them, would react to being in trouble by being mad about someone being mad at her. If you never did this as a child, you are either a saint or a gorilla who never got to spend time with Penny. Check it, starting at about 48:00 into the video. Or watch the whole thing!:

When Andy/Koko have a hero, that hero is Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was her favorite TV show, and when she got to meet her hero, she tried to take off his sneakers just like he did at the top of every episode. Also, this happened:

When Andy/Koko have a pet, they love it, sometimes at great emotional cost (In the words of Mark Antony “if you have tears, prepare to shed them now.”):

Andy/Koko loved Robin Williams:

The closer we examine the animal world, the more complex it becomes. Maybe it is us projecting onto them. Maybe they end up using our own empathy against us, exploiting us for food and survival. Maybe you/me/Koko would have a lot to talk about.




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