Archive for January, 2010

KOKO’S KITTEN, or What Communication Means to Me

Dear Reader,

I just read the children’s book Koko’s Kitten, “an irresistible book about Koko, a lowland gorilla with a 500-word sign-language vocabulary, and a tiny tabby kitten named All Ball.” (Sierra Magazine) It’s written by Dr. Francine Patterson, and it features beautifully intimate photographs by Ronald H. Cohn. Patterson traces her relationship with Koko, whom she meets when Koko is one. She teaches Koko to sign, reads to her, and asks her what she’d like for Christmas. One Christmas Koko signs she’d like a cat, probably because she adores The Three Little Kittens and Puss in Boots.

She eventually receives a kitten, a rough and ready, biting kitten she names All Ball. Koko loves him, even though she says his biting is “obnoxious.” All Ball is run over by a car and killed, so Koko wails her grief, misses him, and then asks for another kitten. The story goes on.

Patterson’s book reminds me how much a little education can do to teach large ideas, one idea being that animals as big and scary as gorillas feel pain, love, frustration, hope, joy, sorrow, and more. Another idea is that communication can alleviate faulty assumptions we humans use to justify mistreatment of animals, including humans.

A client of mine was a Lost Boy in Southern Sudan. At four he began to run for his life, and he kept running from country to country, until when in his teens he moved to the US. He feels lucky he wasn’t murdered by natives when he crossed their lands, who often murdered interlopers. But he picked up and used a few phrases from every tribe he encountered, he communicated with them, so he was spared. He believes communicating with them made him a human in their eyes, and not an animal to be slaughtered.

Did Koko’s signing make her humanlike? I hope not. Make her seem more complex? Absolutely.  She reminds me that all the world’s living things are complex, even single-celled living things.  I don’t know as much about them as I assume I do, but if they could communicate with me  I’d know a whole lot more.

Note: Koko is now around 38 years old. She’d love to have a gorilla baby to care for. She has a working vocabulary of 1000 signs, and understands at least 2000 spoken English words. To read about her, go to The Gorilla Foundation,