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Television

Review: ‘Koko, the Gorilla Who Talks,’ still controversial, still intriguing

‘Koko, the Gorilla Who Talks’
Koko, a western lowlands gorilla, with her longtime friend and custodian, Dr. Penny Patterson.
(Ron Cohn / The Gorilla Foundation)

“Koko, the Gorilla Who Talks,” which airs Wednesday on PBS, tells a story whose outlines may no longer be as well known as I would assume. Like people going to the moon, it is science news from back in the 20th century, and perhaps somewhat dusty. And yet, as we become gradually more conscious of the consciousness of animals, it’s a subject for now and tomorrow.

For the unfamiliar, Koko is a female western lowland gorilla who for more than four decades has been the subject of an experiment in human-animal communication. Under the tutelage and care of psychologist  Francine “Penny” Patterson, she learned to sign, starting with “eat,” “drink” and “more” and developing a vocabulary of hundreds of words and, depending on whom you want to believe, to express her desires and emotions in sentences, opening a window into animal self-consciousness at odds with what many regard as possible. (Herbert Terrace, who had run a primate sign-language experiment of his own – the subject of James Marsh’s 2011 documentary “Project Nim” – is the notable skeptic here.) 

More than a study of the science involved, however, it’s a family portrait, really, of Penny and Koko, who have what is described by more than one observer as a mother-daughter relationship. They have been in each other’s lives a very long time: Patterson, who met a baby Koko in 1971 when she was a Stanford graduate student, was 70 at the time of the program’s original British broadcast last year. (The documentary is the work of the BBC Natural History Unit, co-produced by PBS with American narration overlaid for the domestic audience.)

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There is some drama in the story. After a few years of work and bonding, Patterson almost lost custody of Koko when the San Francisco Zoo wanted her back to lend her out to breed; a public campaign allowed Patterson to buy her. And there is a melancholy air to some of it. Patterson regrets that Koko’s mothering instincts – lavished on dolls and a succession of kittens and cats – have yet to be fulfilled with a baby of her own, and she recognizes that her own relationship with Koko is at the back of what’s denied her a normal gorilla life. But mostly, there is a succession of days, turning into years and a shared lifetime.

Some may be made skeptical by accessory details. Patterson has something of an old hippie vibe; she can seem less than “scientific.” Some will look no further than the clutter of her surroundings or the bangs she wears to dismiss her as a mere gorilla-hugger, but even the sympathetic viewer may at times feel uncomfortable. There have been questions too, not covered in the film, about the quality of care received by Koko and Ndume, a male gorilla on loan from the Cincinnati Zoo. It doesn’t help Koko’s case that animal-human communication as a field of study has been out of fashion for years, or that the filmmakers don’t fully place Patterson’s work within the context of other research projects.

In some ways, this shouldn’t be controversial at all. There are those who regard animals as furry automatons, whose response to stimulus is merely chemical or mechanical. But anyone who has lived with an animal has shared some kind of language with it; and anyone who has lived with more than one animal knows each as an individual. For the record, a picture of an ape holding a kitten is all it takes for me to go to pieces; that is my bias.

People will forget the statistics of how many words Koko knows, Patterson says, “but the fact that Koko can love, we can love each other even though we’re different species really gets people thinking deeply about life – and that’s what we need to do.”

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

‘Koko -- The Gorilla Who Talks’

Where: KOCE and KPBS

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

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