Koko, a female western lowland gorilla, has a vocabulary of over 1000 words in the American Sign Language (ASL). Her fame has increased recently with a video of her grieving over the death of Robin Williams. The Gorilla Foundation was founded upon the results of an ape linguistic capability study which involved Koko and carried out by Dr. Francine Penny Patterson.
My first thoughts were that this was cool and really exciting as we can get to understand what goes on in the mind of another species. But how is this beneficial to anyone? A gorilla being able to communicate with humans might be able to express its needs but this is only possible in captivity. It allows us to provide better care for captive animals if the animals themselves can communicate their preferences to us in a human language we understand rather than having us learn how to interpret their non-human-like behavior. I think future plans to teach wild gorillas ASL are unlikely probably since, being wild and endangered, we should leave wild gorillas alone with zero or minimal human contact unless necessary.
How would such projects help animals in the wild? From a page outlining some of the progress and plans of Project Koko, they state that their project has changed the way humans view gorillas from the aggressive King Kong to the compassionate Koko. In conservation, the project’s published works have evoked empathy for gorillas. This simply means that it has gotten more people to see gorillas as sentient even human-like beings and get involved in gorilla conservation. This does not actually directly benefit gorilla conservation as it does not gives us insight into exactly how to conserve gorillas but merely increase human resource which might indirectly translate to more research into conservation itself.
There is a debate on whether Koko actually comprehends language the way humans do. Using ASL, Koko signs a string of words rather then in grammatically correct sentences. Other criteria include whether Koko would sign without prompting, initiate small talk and ask questions. If Koko could comprehend the human language the way we do and use it to communicate effectively, how human does this make her?
A few movies have starred apes living with human families, wearing human clothes and participating in human activities. Meanwhile, other non-celebrity apes are displayed in zoos or used in other non-language laboratory experiments. The case of Nim Chimpsky questions the humanizing of apes.
Nim Chimpsky was pulled from his mother 10 days after he was born and raised by a human family as a human child. He as taught ASL, wore human clothes and lived in a human home. After 4 years, the experiment was ended and Nim was sent back to the Institute of Primate Studies (IPS) where he originally came from. But when the IPS ran out of funding, Nim and other chimpanzees were sold to a laboratory to be used in a hepatitis study where he was kept in a cage and unable to communicate with the staff who did not learn ASL. Within a month and after a national protest, Nim ended up in an animal sanctuary and eventually died from a heart attack at the young age of 26.
Koko is quite a celebrity herself. She stars in a book and documentary movie “Koko, the Talking Gorilla” and has been visited by many human celebrities such as the recently deceased Robin Williams. A Twitter account provides updates on the Gorilla Foundation and a photo blog “KokoPix” and video blog and YouTube Channel “KokoFlix” captures notable or exciting Koko and Ndume (another gorilla in the Gorilla Foundation) moments. Interestingly, the videos and pictures show Koko doing human activities. It appears that the caretakers are treating them very much like human beings. Since gorillas are not human, is it a mistake to interpret their signs in human contexts? Or rather, would teaching them ASL limit their thought expressions to a human context?
Teaching gorillas ASL or to communicate with humans are not the only way to show how similar these animals are to us. Observing them in their natural habitats, Dian Fossey has found that each gorilla has its own unique personality. Onsite studies however could be very different from those in labs or buildings. The movie “Gorillas in the Mist” is based on the true story of Dian Fossey has all the Hollywood drama elements. This is perhaps a less invasive way (to the apes) of sorts to uncover ways to invoke empathy in us for other primates.
Sharing a common language with apes or even other animal species is definitely exciting and inter-species communication is right out of a fairy tale. However, removing apes from ‘ape society’ and into human society may not be good in a sense for the ape. Yes, the captive ape would be able to ask anything of the human caretakers and its life in captivity would be greatly improved or even the best we can provide but this does not seem “natural” (this leads to a whole new debate). No matter how much an ape can acquire a human language, I cannot foresee a future where they live remotely equal to us portrayed in some the Planet of the Apes movies. We need to make sure that such experiments are carried out for scientific purposes rather than to satisfy our strange desire to project human characteristics onto other animals which has debatable consequences.