Koko, the gorilla who is believed to have mastered sign language, has died.
The Gorilla Foundation says the 46-year-old western lowland gorilla died in her sleep at the foundation’s preserve in California’s Santa Cruz mountains on Tuesday.
The foundation said Koko opened the minds and hearts of millions as an icon for interspecies communication and empathy.
Koko appeared in many documentaries and twice in National Geographic. The gorilla’s 1978 cover featured a photo that the animal had taken of herself in a mirror.
The foundation said it will honour Koko’s legacy with a sign language application featuring Koko for the benefit of gorillas and children, as well as other projects.
Koko the gorilla, who appeared on our cover, could chat, tease, and even argue with scientists using sign language. She has died at the age of 46. <a href=”https://t.co/JX9vlFzpiI”>pic.twitter.com/JX9vlFzpiI</a>
Koko was among a handful of primates who could communicate using sign language; others included Washoe, a female chimpanzee in Washington state, and Chantek, a male orangutan in Atlanta.
Her keepers said she understood some spoken English, too. While some scientists questioned the sign language claim, the “talking” lowland gorilla nevertheless became an ambassador for her species, which is threatened by logging and poaching in central Africa.
Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo on July 4, 1971. Her birth name was Hanabi-ko (Japanese for Fireworks Child).
Dr. Francine (Penny) Patterson began working with Koko the following year and taught her sign language, the foundation said.
In 1998, Koko took to the Internet in what was billed as the first “interspecies” chat, relaying comments such as “I like drinks” via a human interpreter to tens of thousands of online participants.
“Legit bawling like a baby right now,” one mourner, Jess Cameron, wrote on the foundation’s Facebook page.
“This news just breaks my heart. From an early age I was fascinated with Koko and she taught me so much about love, kindness, respect for animals, and our planet.”