On June 19th Koko the gorilla died.
I have to say, this had more impact on me than the deaths of other well known people. In the last few years I’ve mourned many people I respected and whose lives enriched mine. Some deaths were expected from age. Some were a surprise—those are somehow harder. But the two that have the most effect on me were Alex, Irene Pepperberg’s long time associate, and now Koko.
We raise turtles and have done so for over twenty years. Some have become part of the family in the sense that they will never be sold regardless of whether or not we can breed and sell their offspring. It has become clear over the years that these animals can recognize individual people. They come for food for some and not others.
Koko and Alex and our turtles are wild animals—they have not been condition over thousands of generations to love us like cats and dogs. Whoever they are came from evolutionary conditions in which we did not participate.
Several years ago we had a sulcata named Ibn. We grew him as a hatchling until he was better than fifty pounds. During the summer he had the run of the back yard. Often, he would come over and nudge my ankle for a treat or a scratch. These are what I would expect from any associative learning.
But other times I would sit in the back yard and Ibn would leave his usual spot where he grazed and came over nearby and recommence grazing next to me. This happened enough times that I couldn’t just attribute it to checking me out for food or a good scratch—he didn’t indicate that to me with a nudge. But he came to be near me just the same.
These are animals that diverged from our line over two hundred million years ago. There is little common ground between us. But between me and Ibn was something. There was something about being near me he liked. It wasn’t a friendship. It wasn’t anything remotely like anything a human might call a “relationship” except in the broadest terms. But it was something.
This is what made Irene and Alex so interesting. It was clear Alex and Doctor Pepperberg had a real relationship—more than just call and response or task and reward. Yet, Alex’s lineage was just as far from human as Ibn’s. Alex had a wonderful mind and spirit but whatever powered was not the same as what powered ours. All of the brain enhancements that made us human happened since that divergence. If Alex had feelings for Pepperberg—and all signs point to yes on that one—he felt them and expressed them using machinery we did not have.
I have been following Koko since the late seventies. What she and Francine Patterson did together in terms of communication was nothing short of remarkable. But that is not what is profound here is not the work they did together but the deep and lasting relationship they had.
It is easy for a human being to love another human being. While we’re all very different, from any perspective outside of our own species, we’re all pretty much the same. We work hard at that and it’s not a bad thing. When we try to see other points of view we draw ourselves closer. I’m not saying we’re not all individuals—we truly are—but perhaps no more individualized than many other individuals within a species. It’s an intraspecies thing.
Gorillas aren’t that different from us. They have a big primate brain. The brain is shaped a lot like ours. We didn’t diverge from them more than ten million years ago—more than twenty times that for Alex or Ibn. They’re practically cousins in an evolutionary sense.
They are, in fact, close enough that when we bridge that gap we can be fairly certain that what we recognize on the other side is probably not our imaginations.
I have no doubt that Francine Patterson loved Koko. It’s obvious in her filmed interactions with her. With the way she rewrote her life around Koko. I don’t think Patterson had any illusions about Koko. I don’t think she thought of Koko as another human being the way we so often foist our own species image on other animals. Right now she is no doubt heartbroken and grieving.
I have no doubt Koko cared for Patterson. There is something in the films—some difference between how Koko interacts with her and how Koko interacts with anyone else—that suggests that to me.
Where humans are really at their best is when we try to honestly reach across that species barrier. We do this all the time and if there is anything divine or magnificent about human beings, this is one place where it appears.
It’s not surprising when we love them. It’s a gift when they love us back.