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koko with kitten

Hanabiko, or "Koko" for short, is one of the most unique gorillas in the world. She has receives world wide acclaim for being the first gorilla to master the use of sign language. Through her extensive Gorilla Sign Language (GSL) vocabulary, she has been able to communicate with her trainer and many others. However, her fame doesn't end with this female gorilla's language skills; she is also one of the first animals to keep a pet of her own.

The saga of Koko's kittens started on Christmas in 1983 when Koko expressed interest in receiving a cat like the ones in her favorite books. The Gorilla Foundation gave her a lifelike stuffed animal, but like a child that asked for a real pet for Christmas, she was less than satisfied. The toy was left abandoned and Koko continued to sign that she was sad, so on her birthday on July 4th, 1984, she received a gray male Manx from a litter of orphaned kittens, naming him All Ball. She cared for All Ball like he was a baby gorilla, trying to nurse him and treating him as gentle and loving as a new mother. Unfortunately, All Ball escaped from her cage and was hit by a car. Koko's trainer, Francine "Penny" Patterson, states that after the incident, she heard Koko making sounds similar to human weeping.

Later in 1985, Koko received two more kittens that she name Lipstick and Smokey. When asked what their names meant by her trainer, Koko signed that she named Lipstick because of her unique pink nose and pink lips while Smokey was named after a cat from one of her books. However, even cats can't match the markedly long lifespan of gorillas. They lived with her for 20 years, but passed on of natural causes.

koko and lipstick
Credit: The Gorilla Foundation

Since 2010, Koko has had a series of visits from kittens thanks to the Humane Society, but it wasn't until her 44th birthday in 2015 that she decided to adopt again. In a video released last Tuesday, it shows Koko taking a liking to a little grey kitten, not unlike All Ball, as well as a small black kitten taking a liking to her. Both kittens have been brought to live with Koko and are already adjusting well, activating Koko's maternal and play instincts, wholly energizing the aging gorilla.

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