This article originally appeared in the December 1986 issue of playboy magazine.
Koko is the most celebrated gorilla in the world, and for good reason. She is the first gorilla that can use a human language. Dr. Penny Patterson has been her teacher since Koko’s birth and is the director of the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, California, where Koko now lives.
Robert Crane interviewed Koko, with Dr. Patterson acting as interpreter. He reports, “Koko, 15 years old and 230 pounds, sat poised and ready in her open-air living area. She looked me in the eye and, using American Sign Language, commanded, ‘Show me your teeth,’ which I respectfully did. She was delighted by the enormous amount of gold and silver in my mouth. Her mate, Michael, 13 and 350 pounds, who shares quarters with her, never looked me in the eye—something to do with the fact that I was a stranger and a male.
"Koko and Michael, who have an occasional spat, are, for the most part, nonaggressive. They are the subjects of an ongoing study by the foundation’s research team. Both gorillas seem happy and, in Koko’s case, willing to deal with media attention.”
Who are smarter, gorillas or humans?
Koko Devil. Gorilla Koko love good.
What is the most fun to do?
Please eat. Please eat.
What makes you happy?
[Slaps her chest] Gorilla Koko love good. Koko love good fake tooth. [Fake tooth is Koko’s sign for a gold dental cap or crown.] Feel Devil know. Gorilla polite happy Koko.
Do you think Michael is cute?
Cute [signed with two hands for emphasis equaling very cute] sweet good.
What’s better than bananas?
What’s the difference between boys and girls?
Corn there [points toward floor] good. [Koko gets corn, because her floor is clean. Michael doesn’t, because his is dirty. The morning before the interview took place, Michael hadn’t received a corn treat, because he had urinated on the floor. The gorillas are toilet trained.] Girl people. [Koko thinks of herself as a person and of Michael as an animal.]
Which sex smells better?
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Polite want good. Gorilla good.
Gorilla don’t know Koko love good.
What don’t people understand?
Sorry good. [When I say I’m sorry and I’ll be good] Frown look lip [her sign for female] pimple [people] fake tooth. [They frown when I want to look at women’s fake teeth.] Gorilla don’t know Koko love good. [Gorillas and people don’t know that Koko loves to be good.]
What do you think of our language?
Fake lie good.
What’s your most troublesome thought?
That. [Points toward gold-foil pattern on one of her scraps of fabric. Koko wants a gold tooth so badly that the night before, she had put a piece of gold braid into her mouth and swallowed it. Koko puts the gold foil against her first right upper molar, as if trying to make her tooth a gold one.]
When is the kitten more trouble than it’s worth?
Cat bad good. Frown eat there. [Points to her cereal—referring to the fact that her cat has, on occasion, eaten it]
What’s it like having hands on your feet?
Good there [floor] there [mesh fence]. [They’re good for use on the floor and on the fence.]
What does it mean when you slap your chest?
Gorilla good. Drink hurry good drink me. [Koko beats her chest to intimidate Penny, to get her to give her drinks, which have been restricted for a medical test.]
What do you want for your birthday?
What do you say when you really want to insult people?
Dirty. Devil head.
How do you feel when you’ve eaten too much cake?
Sad bad stomach.
What would you eat for the sheer pleasure of it?
Is there anything else you want people to know about you?
Me gorilla gorilla me Koko good … finished.
What do you say when you’re tired of being asked questions?
Gorilla teeth. Finished.
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