Francine Patterson

1978 Laureate, Science & Health
United States, Born 1947

Project Goal

Test the ability of gorillas to learn and use human sign language

Location: United States

Talking to Gorillas

Francine (Penny) Patterson was a 25-year-old graduate psychology student at Stanford University interested in cognitive development when she first met Koko, a baby lowland gorilla, at the San Francisco Zoo in 1972. A professor at Stanford had helped bring about the meeting and had sparked Patterson’s interest in working with gorillas to learn more about primate linguistic abilities.

Four years of intense communication and training later, Koko had acquired a vocabulary of approximately 250 words in American Sign Language (ASL), the language used by the deaf in North America. Unprompted, Koko could combine these words into meaningful and novel sentences of up to 12 words. She frequently used up to 180 different signs during the course of a day and on human intelligence tests she consistently scored about 85 (100 is an average score for people).

Invents Words

"Koko spontaneously comments on her environment, feelings and desires. She invents words, talks to herself and uses language in imaginative play. She also has been known to lie, have a sense of humour, and demonstrate the potential ability for representational art — a talent thought to be unique to man," Patterson reported after only a few years of working with the gorilla.

These results were comparable to those of similar studies conducted with chimpanzees, and they contradicted established scientific thinking which had always considered gorillas to be intellectually inferior to chimpanzees. Encouraged by Koko’s dramatic progress, Patterson decided to include a second gorilla, Michael, in the project. She worked with Michael in the same way she’d worked with Koko in order to determine whether or not Koko was an exceptional case.

Given the fact that "Project Koko" was an ongoing, longitudinal study, in 1976 Patterson created the Gorilla Foundation, together with Dr Ronald Cohn, and the late Barbara Hiller, who had cared for Koko as an infant in the zoo nursery. The foundation set up its facilities in the forested highlands of Woodside, California, in the United States. The purpose of the foundation was to generate public interest and support for the linguistic work with Koko and Michael.

But by 1977 the first and only long-term study of the linguistic and behavioural development of gorillas faced premature termination. The zoo that owned Koko wanted her back, unless Patterson could raise US$12,500 in payment.

First Woman Laureate

For help to purchase Koko and to complete payment on Michael, Patterson applied to the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, and in 1978 she became the first woman to receive the prize. "Rolex provided support when it was most needed," she remembers. "In 1978 the Gorilla Foundation was still a new organisation with few sources of financial support."

Partly as a result of the publicity from the award, a year later the foundation was able to move from Stanford’s campus to 6.5 acres in the forested highlands of Woodside, California. At the time, the new location offered Koko and Michael a more protected environment and in 1981 the foundation completed work on the gorillas’ indoor facility and outdoor play-yard.

The award also brought Patterson into contact with two other laureates, Dr Ken Marten, a zoologist, now directing research on dolphin behaviour in Hawaii, and Dr Bill Lasley, an endocrinologist who, at that time, specialised in birds. Since then, the three scientists have regularly swapped information and research techniques, collaborating on revealing studies of animal behaviour.

Today the Gorilla Foundation counts some 60,000 individuals, families and corporations among its membership, and its original purpose of supporting the linguistic studies involving Koko and Michael has developed and expanded. In December 1991, the foundation acquired Ndume, a 10-year-old male from the Cincinnati Zoo. Ndume does not take part in the sign language research, but serves as a control and can provide comparative data on gorillas’ use of natural communicative gestures.

Media Celebrity

Over the years, Koko’s vocabulary has expanded — it could now be over 1,000 words — and she has appeared in newspapers, magazines, books and films throughout the world. She has learned to use a computer and keeps her own diary. She recognizes herself in the mirror. She also invents her own signs.

The extent of Koko’s creativity became evident when she was put on a reduced-calorie diet that included more high fibre vegetation or "browse". Koko put a fist, the ASL sign for "S", to her brow, thus constructing the word browse. "The astonishing thing," Patterson says, "is how long it took us to realise what she was saying."

One unique finding was that Koko understood statements in spoken English as easily as sign language. The major linguistic lesson that emerged from this is that gorillas have the foundations for speech perception even though they do not produce what we recognise as speech.

A colleague at Stanford has used this insight to work with autistic children, enabling them to express themselves through ASL and reduce their frustration at not being able to put their feelings into conventional words. A number of parents of autistic children have also written to Patterson confirming the value of ASL in communicating with their children.

Threats to Gorillas

Along with Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Birute Galdikas, Patterson took part in 1981 in an international symposium on the state of research on the great apes. The symposium left her seriously disturbed by the threats to gorillas in the wild.

"Current zoo gorilla population levels are barely large enough to sustain the species," she points out. "Gorillas are more psychologically delicate than other great ape species. Environmental stresses often negatively impact gorilla reproductive potential." Koko is a case in point. She celebrated her 25th birthday in 1996, but still has not mated. Most gorillas in captivity are ready to reproduce at the age of eight.

"Africa’s projected human population explosion, political instability and accelerated deforestation threaten African preserves and free-living gorillas. It becomes clearer every day that gorillas will need alternative habitats in more stable political and economic areas of the world as a biological fail-safe against extinction," Patterson says. Half of the world’s 650 free-living mountain gorillas are found in areas disrupted by civil war.

Another threat to free-living gorillas is that of the bushmeat trade that is often encouraged by loggers. Photographer Karl Amman, who has investigated the trade, says it is "one of the biggest, if not the biggest, primate conservation issue facing Africa today. Entire gorilla and chimp populations are eaten into extinction, at a rate of thousands of animals a year."

The Maui Preserve

Together with Gorilla Foundation co-founder Cohn, Patterson began searching for an appropriate preserve for the gorillas in 1983. "Koko, Michael and Ndume have made it clear they have an aversion to cold, damp weather which occurs often in the mountains of Northern California," the foundation reported in Gorilla, its twice-yearly magazine. "They refuse to go outside and seem to exhibit lethargy and depression during these periods."

Things began looking up when Patterson and Cohn identified a 70-acre site owned by the Maui Land and Pineapple Company. Maui has a climate similar to the gorilla’s natural African habitat. Temperatures range from 55 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit (13 to 29 degrees Celsius) and rainfall averages 70 to 100 inches (1178 to 2540 mm) per year.

In 1993 the Gorilla Foundation signed a long-term lease at US$1 a year for the land estimated to be worth at least $7 million. This generous gift was made by Mary Cameron Sanford. An engineering company donated $20,000 in services for the design of the utilities. The foundation spent another $75,000 for the initial subdivision and permits. And the Hawaiian House of Representatives welcomed the foundation through a resolution on 6 April 1993, granting it formal recognition.

As a result, the Allan G. Sanford Gorilla Preserve will eventually provide a haven for free-living and zoo gorillas who will be able to find safety and a more natural life there.

Because of their unique ability to communicate with their care givers, Koko and Michael have been able to make their needs and desires clearly understood. In the planning of the reserve then, the gorillas themselves have played a crucial role.

Disturbed by Strangers

"Koko and Michael have been extremely helpful in designing the Maui preserve," Patterson reports. "The gorillas’ preferences and opinions were taken into consideration during the planning stages. For instance, the preserve will not be open to the public because the gorillas are disturbed by the presence of strangers." Instead, a closed-circuit television system will enable the public to view the animals from a distance.

"Thanks to the generosity of our members, we have $1.2 million in our Preserve Fund — enough to install a reservoir, bring in utilities, grade and gravel the nearly impassable dirt access road, pay additional engineering fees, and build one modest half-acre enclosure for the gorillas," Patterson says. Additional work and moving expenses, however, will cost another $2 million and the foundation is working hard to raise this amount.

With gorillas usually living to their fifties, the most thorough attempt to communicate with another animal species is set to continue for some time yet. "It’s a very special relationship that I have with these animals," Patterson says. "It is the best thing that could have happened to me, because I am very much an animal person. In fact, I’m a gorilla person."

Patterson is now trying to spread news of her research to children in Africa. "They should grow up knowing how much the gorillas are like us. Through the letters we receive from our supporters of all ages and all walks of life, we know that Koko and Michael offer perhaps the best hope for humane animal treatment through a changed perception of the nature of human and animal relationships."

Other 1978 Laureates