Koko the Gorilla
Really Intelligent Animal

Koko the gorilla, a 35-year old western lowland gorilla, was brought up and taught to communicate by Dr. Patterson of Stanford University. Koko has become a real symbol of gorilla intelligence.

Gorilla intelligence? Can that be true?

To answer this question, let’s define the term intelligence as a capacity of mind to understand what is happening around, to acquire knowledge and apply it in practice.

In this case, can we say that gorillas possess at least some levels of intelligence?

There are plenty of discussions about it in the academic community and there is no universal consensus on this matter.

Let’s try to understand more about animal intelligence using an example of Koko the gorilla.

The Case of Koko the Gorilla

English artist Richard Stone volunteered to draw Koko’s portrait that would be sold to raise funds for conservation of gorillas in Africa. He shares his memories of meeting Koko with us in one of his articles (below are some extracts from this article):

Koko is a 35-year-old lowland gorilla. As a mature female, she weighs 22 stone and has the strength of six men …

She has a vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and understands about 2,000 English words.

She was given IQ tests several times when she was younger and scored between 70 and 95, where 100 is considered normal for humans. Her carers insist she is not, however, a 'genius' gorilla, just typical for her species …

What a truly magnificent beast she is. Her fur is thick and lustrous and she has a wonderfully expressive face with the most beautiful, deep-set eyes, like liquid amber …

Slowly and carefully Koko extended an arm through the bars and then, almost tenderly, lay the back of her hand on my chest. Dr Patterson interpreted: 'She sees you as a friend.' …

All the while I was showering Koko with compliments and she actually started purring: a low, soft sound from the back of her throat, just like an ecstatic cat. She took my hand and guided it towards her face. It felt soft, smooth and warm.

She very delicately blew at me, to signal her pleasure. I braced myself for a blast of gorilla halitosis but she has the sweetest smelling breath and she loves showing off her excellent teeth …

It was an extraordinary moment. As the door [of the cage] was opened, Koko moved to the centre of her living quarters.

I took a deep breath and gingerly stepped in, keeping low.

Koko indicated that she wanted me to sit down, tapping the floor next to her. I tentatively sat cross-legged next to her …

Koko pulled me very gently but firmly towards her, so I was turned to face her directly.

She reached forward and took my head in both her hands …

They completely enveloped my head; this was a beast with the ability to tear me limb from limb with just as much ease as she might peel a banana. It was a moment I will not easily forget.

Slowly, she turned my head further and then gazed directly into my eyes for about ten seconds. I believe she was letting me know I was in no danger but at the same time establishing that she was the boss. (1)

During the meeting Richard managed to make sketches of some of Koko’s favourite toys – a rubber crocodile and a cloth snake.

He mentions that after seeing his sketches, Koko asked him in sign language to give her a sketchbook and a pencil to do some drawings herself. He also describes how she gazed out of the window thinking what she was going to draw.

After finishing her drawing she showed her sketchbook to Richard and he could see that she clearly recreated the crocodile drawing that he did for her before. (2)

Apart from anything else, this is an excellent example of Koko the gorilla’s exceptional communication skills.

It is simply amazing how Koko can use her own gorilla sign language (based on American Sign Language) to communicate with those who care for her, and with her visitors.

There is a possibility that people can also communicate with gorillas in the wild. For example, a well-known mountain gorilla ecotourism program in Rwanda requires the assistance of park rangers in guiding tourists to see gorillas in the forest – this may require an ability of park rangers to communicate with “habituated” gorillas in some way or another.

Other Facts about Gorilla Intelligence

  • If we use a “mirror test” as a measure of self-awareness in animals (the test measures if an animal can recognize its own reflection in the mirror), then gorillas are self-aware since Koko the gorilla, for example, did pass her own self-awareness test (3);
  • Recently, to many scientists’ surprise, gorillas have been discovered to use tools to overcome problems.

For example, recently in the Republic of Congo a gorilla was seen to step into a pool but found herself deep in the water, she then climbed out, got a straight branch from a tree and went back to the pool using this stick as a tool to check the water depth. (4)

Another gorilla used a stick for digging for herbs and used the same stick as a bridge to cross muddy ground. (5)

  • Gorillas can use medicinal plants to help cure their ailments. For example, one of them is believed to be eaten to cure diarrhoea.

It is thought that even healers who live in close proximity to gorillas observe what plants these animals eat and then try them out on people. (6)

So Koko the gorilla is not the only intelligent representative of her species.

But there is so much that we don't know about these captivating animals. What we certainly need is to open up our minds towards learning more about gorillas as well as the nature in general.


Written by:     Irina Bright of Tropical-Rainforest-Animals.com

Publication Date:     January 2008


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