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WRITE TEAM: The legacy of Koko

Recently Koko the gorilla passed away. She was 46 years old.

Who was Koko the gorilla? She was a lowland gorilla that lived in a nature preserve in California. She also had learned how to speak English over the course of her life. She could sign over 2,000 words and she understood approximately 2,000 English words. Considering she could not physically speak the language that is an impressive feat.

She was taught from an early age how to speak the language. Many have argued that she understood complex emotions and nuances about language. Researchers say that she had the ability to express coherent thoughts. She was given pets that she picked out and loved. In general, Koko the gorilla was just like any human you might meet. The exception is that she lived in captivity.

Through all of this, however, the complexity of her emotions and the compassion that she showed through signs is an important step in understanding our place in the world. We live in a world where complex emotions are played upon by politicians and compassion is considered weakness or naivete. For Koko, many considered it unique and beautiful.

The legacy of Koko the gorilla should not be one that makes her out to be an exception among her kind. It is reported that other primates have also learned to sign and that other animals have expressed complex emotions. Instead it should be a legacy that does not single her out as unique in her abilities but her capacity for communication and compassion.

How can it be that a gorilla that is kept in captivity can relay how she feels and what she wants and how much love she has to give in an honest and reasonable way, yet human adults who have been given the benefit of learning the same language cannot communicate with other people as effectively? It might be that Koko was never taught to hate. She was encouraged to love and share. It could be that no matter how well we communicate our society will never allow us to live in peace. Perhaps there is a flaw in the system itself.

Of course, I don’t believe in living without hope. I say that if Koko the gorilla can learn to talk, love and understand then there is no reason that we can’t be doing a better job. If she can talk to another creature outside of her species fluently then there is certainly no reason that we cannot look to each other and open a dialogue.

So, the next time you see politicians on television who cannot get their act together, try to remember that a gorilla could do what they could not. Then proceed to ask yourself this question: Was Koko the gorilla an exceptional gorilla or are we not as superior as we truly believe?

That will be the real legacy Koko leaves behind.

BOBBY RIAHI is a writer, chef and father who wants to make the world a better place through his writing. He grew up in small towns and tries to put the world into perspective from there. He can be reached at

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