Koko the Gorilla, famous for learning sign language dies at 46

June 21 (Reuters) - Koko, a western lowland gorilla said to have mastered American Sign Language, has died aged 46, the California institute which studied her said on Thursday.

"The Gorilla Foundation is sad to announce the passing of our beloved Koko," the research center said in a statement, adding she passed away in her sleep.

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.

Koko the gorilla
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Koko the gorilla
(Original Caption) In several previous experiments, sign language has been taught to chimpanzees, but this is the first real attempt with a gorilla. At left, Koko indicates 'eat' with bunched fingertips to her lips and gets her prize (right). The experiment began in a mobile home at San Francisco Zoo. Now the mobile home is established with its own fenced yard on the Stanford Campus.
(Original Caption) 'You key there me cookie.' With that sign language, Koko the gorilla tells her mentor; 28-year old graduate student Penny Patterson, to get the key, open the closet and get a goodie out of the cookie jar. Here, Koko gives the 'to listen' sign in sign-language, telling Penny she wants to listen to the phone. She doesn't know the real phone sign yet.
(Original Caption) Koko, a four and a half year old gorilla, who has been taught some sign language, made her debut her 5/19. At left Francine 'Penny' Patterson, graduate student at Stanford and main instructor of Koko, asks the gorilla if she is hungry and Koko is answering back that she is. In center is June Monroe, an interpreter for the deaf at St. Luke's Church, who helped teach Koko.
(Original Caption) Koko, now 3-1/2, has learned 120 sign language signals. Miss Patterson, a Stanford student working on her PH.D., chose sing language for Koko because primates, other than man, lack vocal apparatus with enough flexibility for verbal language. Here Koko asks for an orange from Penny by extending her left arm away from her body (l). At (r), Koko gives the orange sign with her right hand, using a clockwise rotation of clenched fist pressed to her lips.

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 their native habitats in central Africa.

The Gorilla Foundation said Koko touched the lives of millions as an icon for interspecies communication and empathy.

"She was beloved and will be deeply missed," it said.

Koko was born Hanabi-ko (Japanese for "Fireworks Child") on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson began working with Koko the following year and taught her sign language, the foundation said.

The gorilla was featured in many documentaries and appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine twice, once - in October 1978 - in a photograph Koko had taken of herself in a mirror.

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."

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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