DocuMondays – Koko: A Talking Gorilla

Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978, dir. Barbet Schroeder)

I have faint memories of being a little kid and seeing video of Koko the gorilla and her cat/adopted child All Ball. I also remember seeing Dr. Penny Patterson with Koko and years later came across an article that reminded me I was familiar with this story already. Now, as an adult, I go back to where the story began, the days before Koko was an internationally known figure and simply part of study at Stanford to teach a gorilla sign language. What she became is a mirror to put our own ideas of personhood and intelligence up against.

Koko was born in captivity in the San Francisco Zoo. She was lent to Stanford, but as the movie explains, she was kept past the agreed upon stay and things between the zoo and the college got very tense. Dr. Patterson, 28 at the time of the documentary, bonded with Koko deeply, and shows an obvious maternal instinct with the ape. Director Schroeder explains in the film that the entire documentary had to be kept quiet, lest the zoo contact authorities to have Koko removed.

Koko is shown going about her daily routine with Patterson, who we are told has to be there when Koko wakes up and when she falls asleep to keep their bond airtight. Patterson has in effect devoted her entire life to the care and development of Koko, same as a devoted parent to a child. Patterson even disciplines Koko with a fearlessness that shows an absence of distinction between man and ape. For us laymen, should a gorilla misbehave we would try to back out of the room slowly. For Patterson, she actually strikes Koko to reprimand her for tearing up her room.

The evidence in support of Koko being considered a “person” with the rights that come inherent to that is her ability to apparently synthesize language. She knows 1,000 American Sign Language signs and 2,000 words of spoken English. For objects she has no words for, Koko has shown the ability to merge two signs to describe the object. She had no word for “ring” so she called it “finger-bracelet”. She had no word for “duck” so it became “water-bird”. Fairly impressive. While there can be valid arguments back and forth about Koko being a person or not,  I found Patterson’s wish that Koko not be seen as something that could be owned a statement I would be in support of. The zoo sees Koko as their property, Patterson sees Koko has her child. Both may be a little presumptuous in their ideas of Koko. Once an animal gains the ability to use a human developed language to communicate it should cause us to step back and question many things. If Koko expressed a desire to leave both Stanford and the zoo, would she be granted this request?

A very thought-provoking documentary from one of the premiere documentary makers. Barbet Schroeder, much like the Maysles or Barbara Kopple, is not a character in his own film, but an observer. We hear the occasional question, but the subjects are truly the focus of his work.

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