A chat among primates

Translation into English of an interesting article by UPF student Florencia Florido about 1972 psychology PhD student Francine «Penny» Patterson’s experiment on primtes cognitive abilities.

animalesgorilastraduccion ingles
21 junio, 2021 western lowland gorilla
21 junio, 2021 western lowland gorilla

Original text written by Florencia Florido


Animal experimentation

In 1972, a psychology PhD student at Stanford University set herself a challenge: to teach sign language to a gorilla.

Francine «Penny» Patterson’s goal was to use a common language to investigate the cognitive ability of these great apes.

DISCLAIMER. Traducción realizada en el marco del programa de practicas de Ibidem Group, agencia de traducción que ofrece traducciones en Barcelona y ahora también traducciones en Madrid.

Project Koko or The Truman Show

A female western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) born in captivity was used to carry out the project. Hanabi-Ko (Japanese for «fireworks girl») or Koko, as she was nicknamed, learned a simplified version of American Sign Language (ASL).

Project Koko was developed over a decade, until Koko was 11 years old, although work continued on her gestural communication until the day of her death, shortly before her 47th birthday.


According to the researchers involved, the animal was able to learn 1,000 gestures and understand 2,000 words of spoken language, as well as create new signs when it needed to describe something it had not yet been taught.

It is not presenteeism

This experiment, like others of similar characteristics, was widely criticised, both ethically and scientifically.

Selfishly, Koko spent his entire life in captivity as an object of study to satisfy human curiosity. Moreover, the working method and the interpretative component of the animal’s gesticulation by the researcher-keepers is questionable. Was Koko really saying what she was saying?

Koko’s life was not without controversy. Some of the research methodologies and results of studies with Koko were questioned by the scientific community, leading to fewer and fewer peer-reviewed publications and an eventual dearth of grant funding. This led to Project Koko fading from the medias’ eye and the scientific community as TGF pulled back from communicating on their work with Koko.

Kenneth C. Gold & Lyna M. Watson. Inmemorium: Koko, a remarkable gorilla

Koko the talking gorilla by 60 Minutes Australia

However, The Gorilla Foundation advocates an unexpected consequence of the project: contributing to changing society’s perception of the ethology of gorillas, supported by its slogan «Conservation through Communication» (we’re doing some greenwashing, aren’t we?).

If we are to talk about a true tandem of conservation and research, we must not forget that a better ethical and scientific work was carried out by the trimates, primatologists Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Biruté Galdikas. From the outset, they understood that their objects of study should not pay the price of human curiosity with a denatured life.

RIP Koko.

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