Koko, the gorilla known for mastering a unique form of sign language and for her intimate visits with celebrities like Robin Williams and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, has died. The famous western lowland gorilla, also known as Hanabiko (Japanese for “Fireworks Child”), died Tuesday in her sleep at age 46, The Gorilla Foundation announced.
“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the Foundation said in a statement. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”
Koko was born July 4th, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo and quickly started learning an adapted form of sign language that her caretaker and teacher, animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson labeled “Gorilla Sign Language” (GSL). The gorilla, a two-time National Geographic cover star and the subject of numerous documentaries, also reportedly understood upwards of 2,000 words of verbal English.
In 1974, Patterson and Dr. Ronald Cohn moved Koko to Stanford University and established the Gorilla Foundation, later expanding the project to include a second gorilla, Michael. The team then moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1979.
Due to her fascinating command of language, Koko became a pop culture staple, spending time with numerous celebrities, including Betty White and Mister Rogers. She was even referenced in an episode of Seinfeld (“The Maid”) that featured George Costanza’s failed attempt at landing himself a cool nickname.
In 2016, Flea hung out with Koko in California, allowing the gorilla to pluck and nuzzle with his bass. “This is just the greatest thing that could ever happen,” the musicians wrote in a YouTube video post. “This is the day that I will never forget in my life.”
Perhaps Koko’s famous celebrity encounter occurred in 2001, during a profound visit with Robin Williams. The duo cuddle, laugh and tickle each other in the widely viewed clip. In a news release following the actor’s 2014 death, the Gorilla Foundation wrote, “Dr. Patterson explained that ‘we have lost a dear friend, Robin Williams.’ Koko was quiet and looked very thoughtful.”