Koko was 13 years old when she learned her beloved kitten, All Ball, died after being hit by a car.
Visibly upset, the western lowland gorilla kept signing the words “sad, frown, cry, bad” and cried out with a hooting sound she made as a baby while left alone in her cage at night.
“Those are the only times she gives that cry,” her longtime caregiver, Francine “Penny” Patterson, said in 1985. “It’s like, ‘Someone’s leaving me.’”
At the time, Koko was already a sensation as the first gorilla to learn to communicate with humans through sign language.
But her grief over her pet’s death was hard evidence that great apes — once seen only as chest-pounding monsters à la King Kong — could be gentle, empathetic, humanlike.
Now it’s the world that’s mourning. Koko died in her sleep Tuesday morning at her preserve with the Gorilla Foundation in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains at age 46.
Koko was born Hanabi-Ko on July 4, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo. Her name, which means “fireworks child” in Japanese, was selected as part of a zoo contest.
She was 1 and recovering from malnourishment and an intestinal infection when she first met Patterson, then a Ph.D. candidate studying developmental psychology at Stanford University.
Koko, who was separated from her mother early in life, was on display in the children’s zoo and immediately took to Patterson.
“She pushed her soft face close to mine, smelling me and looking me over,” Patterson recalled in her 1981 book, “The Education of Koko.”
“I signed hello (a gesture somewhat like a salute). Koko put her hand on her head and patted it and then promptly pulled my hair as I sat down.”
Realizing Koko already knew some English and words in sign language, Patterson thought she was perfect for her study of gorillas’ linguistic capabilities. It was dubbed Project Koko.
Patterson got permission from the zoo to teach Koko sign language and started by molding the ape’s hands and giving rewards when she signed words like “food” and “drink,” according to a 1985 story in The Washington Post. Within two months, Koko was forming commands: “Drink there,” “More food.”
Within the first year and a half, Koko, who had been relocated to a compound at Stanford, was picking up one new sign of Gorilla Sign Language, a modified version of American Sign Language, each month.
Her very first question came when she asked to play a game in which Patterson would exhale on a window and the gorilla would draw in her breath’s condensation on the glass.
Koko pointed to the window, to her own mouth, then to Patterson’s mouth.
“That nearly knocked me over,” Patterson said.
But for the researcher, falling in love with a gorilla wasn’t something she had anticipated.
“My initial expectation was that I would work with her for about four years and then I would get my degree and I would move on,” she said in a video on Koko’s Web site. “After a few evenings trying to leave her, I couldn’t. I couldn’t put her down. I ended up staying with her until she was asleep.”
Patterson and fellow researchers Ronald Cohn and Barbara Hiller launched the Gorilla Foundation in 1976. Patterson and Cohn obtained custody of Koko a year later.
Mitzi Phillips, who volunteered at the foundation from 1983 to 1989, remembered how Patterson doted on Koko.
“Her life was Koko,” Phillips, 79, of Grass Valley, Calif., told The Post Thursday. “She was so human that you would almost tend to forget that it was a gorilla. I know Penny must be devastated.”
Patterson never married or had children, but she considered Koko, and the other apes she cared for, her babies.
“My children are gorillas. I’m sorry!” she said in the video. “And that’s probably the way I would’ve written it if I had complete control over the outcome of my life.”
Beginning in her early years, Koko became a celebrity in her own right.
The great ape was 7 years old when she first appeared on the cover of National Geographic in October 1978. The image was decades ahead of its time — a mirror selfie Koko snapped herself.
In the story, Patterson detailed her “dear friend’s” ability to communicate.
“Seeing a horse with a bit in its mouth, she signed, ‘Horse sad.’ When asked why the horse was sad, she signed ‘teeth,’” Patterson wrote.
Koko’s lexicon also included insults — “rotten stink,” “dirty toilet” and “bird” and “nut.”
She even once referred to herself as “stubborn devil” when Patterson expressed frustration.
And Koko could be goofy. Once, she was shoving pieces of paper in her mouth when Phillips, spying her through a window, told her to stop. The gorilla signed for the volunteer to close the window’s shutters.
“She had a real mischievous side to her,” Phillips said.
Koko again landed in the limelight with the 1978 documentary, “Koko: A Talking Gorilla,” shown at the Cannes Film Festival and on “60 Minutes” the next year.
In 1975-76, Koko’s IQ was tested and peaked at 95 when she was 5, according to Patterson. Human IQs average around 100.
In 2012, she stunned scientists by playing wind instruments, including the recorder, harmonica and party whistles, showing apes could learn to control their breathing — once believed to be beyond their ability, NPR reported.
Koko may be best remembered for her love of animals.
In 1983, she became fascinated by the tree frogs in her play yard in Woodside, Calif., where she moved in 1979 with her mate Michael.
Noting how Koko would cradle the tiny frogs under her arm to shield them from Michael, a post on Koko’s site said, “It is an outstanding example of Koko’s innate gentleness and nurturing spirit towards small, vulnerable creatures.”
The 5-foot-3, 280-pound primate also obsessed over kittens — and adopted the tailless All Ball in 1984.
Her fondness for felines landed her a second National Geographic cover in 1985, showing the gentle giant cradling her tiny gray tabby.
“Koko’s Kitten” was the title of the story. A book by the same name was published by Scholastic Books.
The gorilla was shattered by All Ball’s death.
“When we told Koko, she acted like she didn’t hear us for about 10 minutes,” Cohn said. “Then she started whimpering — a distinct hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad. We all started crying together.”
Koko — who went on to adopt many other kittens with names like Lipstick and Smoky — very badly wanted to be a mother herself.
She shacked up with Michael, a male silverback, for years starting in 1976, but the couple failed to produce offspring.
“They got along like siblings,” Phillips said. “Koko would come and say, ‘He picked me,’ meaning he pulled some of her hair out. They got along great, but love never bloomed, unfortunately.”
Michael died in 2000 of congestive heart failure. Koko lived with another male, Ndume, for years, but the two also never mated.
“We had always hoped, of course, that Koko would have a baby, and then we would be able to figure out if she would teach signs to the baby,” Phillips said. “It’s just unfortunate that never happened.”
Over the years, Koko met a bevy of celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Betty White, Fred Rogers and Robin Williams.
She and Williams traded funny faces, and Koko playfully tried on his glasses in their 2001 encounter.
“We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” the comedian said at the time, calling the experience “awesome and unforgettable.”
It was one of the first times Koko smiled since Michael’s death, Patterson said. More than a decade later, the gorilla would go into grieving after learning of Williams’ suicide in 2014.
Koko was remembered by the Gorilla Foundation as an “ambassador for her endangered species” and an “icon for interspecies communication and empathy.”
“Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world,” it said.
At the time of her death, Koko could sign more than 1,000 words and understood more than 2,000 words of spoken English. Her favorite foods were nuts, tofu dishes, apples and corn on the cob, and she loved the movies “Free Willy,” “Maid in Manhattan” and “Pretty Woman.”
Her impact will be everlasting.
“I think her legacy is going to be the fact that she changed the way people think about gorillas. And, in the broader sense, she has changed the way people think about animals,” Phillips said. “She lived a life that was so filled by people who genuinely loved her. That’s what made her so special.”
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