This touching and funny video of a 2001 encounter between Robin Williams and Koko, the American Sign Language-proficient female gorilla, reminded me of a column I wrote three years earlier about a “cyberchat” between Koko and America Online subscribers. I must confess that at the time, my impression of Koko, who is now 43 years old, was that she was a breast-obsessed nympho. I also figured I was projecting my own proclivities onto an ape. But after seeing both the above video and a 2005 news article I’ve linked to at the bottom of the following story, now I’m not so sure…
© 1998 by H.B. Koplowitz
It was billed as the first ever interspecies computer chat. But the April 27, 1998, text dialog between a gorilla and humans on America Online and the Web may have revealed more than its hosts bargained for. Apes, it seems, just wanna have fun.
The event featured Koko, a feisty 25-year-old female gorilla famous for her ability to communicate using American Sign Language. Koko lives at a gorilla research and protection center in northern California called The Gorilla Foundation. Acting as interpreter and spin doctor for the irrepressible ape was Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, who has worked with Koko since she was a baby, teaching her and another gorilla named Michael a modified form of ASL.
Set up like a chat room, AOL subscribers typed questions to a moderator at AOL, who went by the screen name HaloMyBaby. HaloMyBaby spoke questions over the phone to Patterson, who signed them to Koko. Koko’s ASL responses were typed under the screen name LiveKOKO, and Patterson’s comments and explanations of what Koko was saying were typed in as DrPPatrsn.
Tied in with Earth Day, the event was meant to promote the Gorilla Foundation’s work to protect the big apes in Africa and create a gorilla preserve on Maui, Hawaii. But those expecting the five-foot, 300-pound primate to be a prim and proper poster girl for Earth Day were in for a surprise. A cross between Homer Simpson and Madonna, Koko turned out to be an anything-goes slacker and hedonist who takes no crap from the man.
Below are highlights of the historic cyberchat.
The first question to Koko is whether she plans on having a baby. “Koko loves eat,” she says, then adds, “I don’t see it.” Asked if she likes to chat with people, Koko strikes a theme she will return to often. “Fine nipple,” she says.
“Nipple rhymes with people,” Patterson explains. “She doesn’t sign ‘people’ per se. She was trying to do a ‘sounds like…'”
Perhaps. But when asked about her favorite food, fruit or vegetable, Koko says, “I like drinks.” And asked what she wants for her birthday, she replies, “food and smokes.”
“SMOKES?” exclaims AOL’s moderator. “What will the children think?”
“You have to understand,” Patterson spins, “Smoke is also the name of her kitten.”
Koko snacks for awhile, then says, “Lips hurry good give me.”
HaloMyBaby: Lips is woman, right?
DrPPatrsn: Right… She’s got an alligator. She’s playing with her alligator and her lady doll. Oh, my! She may be doing a little acting out here.
HaloMyBaby: She sounds like she’s working out a bit of aggression!
The moderator tries to move things along and asks what Koko thinks about Michael, the other gorilla.
“Foot good,” Koko signs.
HaloMyBaby: Foot means male, right?
“Nipple good.” Koko adds.
The moderator asks what she thinks of another male gorilla, Ndume, and Koko’s response is “toilet.”
DrPPatrsn: That’s her word for bad!
HaloMyBaby: I thought he was supposed to be her mate! What did he do to you today, Koko?
DrPPatrsn: I don’t know… She doesn’t have good things to say about him today.
Asked what Koko thinks of Dr. Patterson and the people who raised her, she replies, “lips apple give me.”
DrPPatrsn: People give her her favorite foods.
HaloMyBaby: As in, they give her things?!
LiveKOKO: Love browse drink nipple.
I imagined Dr. Patterson was rolling her eyes as she once again explained that “browse” means the snacks they feed her.
But Koko repeats, “Koko loves that nipple drink,” kisses her alligator and adds, “lights off good.”
HaloMyBaby changes the subject to the proposed Maui preserve, a 70-acre gorilla sanctuary donated by the Maui Land & Pineapple Company where they hope to establish gorilla family units composed of a male, several females and their babies.
“Fake,” Koko pipes up. “Gorilla brown bad.”
Yet again Patterson goes on spin control: “She knows that what I’m saying hasn’t happened yet. So, she’s indicating that ‘fake’ is not what she has now, even though I’m talking about it, and the reason we haven’t been able to make it happen yet is that we’re working very hard to raise the money to make it happen.”
“Good fine have food lips,” Koko signs.
Patterson suggests Koko is ready for dinner, and HaloMyBaby tries to say good bye, but Koko has one other piece of business to attend to.
She blows a kiss and signs, “look.”
HaloMyBaby: I would be happy to come see her so she could look at me!
LiveKOKO: hat that.
DrPPatrsn: She wants to hear, but the phone cord won’t stretch.
HaloMyBaby: Hello Koko? (I just asked her about her dinner over the phone!)
LiveKOKO: visitor, koko loves lips
HaloMyBaby: I love her too!
HaloMyBaby: I’d like to see you some time!
Thus ended the first interspecies Internet chat session, proving that even a 300-pound gorilla can get a date in cyberspace.