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Koko (full name Hanabi-Ko, Japanese for 'Fireworks Child', because she was born on 4 July) is a female gorilla born in San Francisco Zoo in 1971. She was a rather sickly youngster and was 'adopted' by Dr Frances Patterson (known as Penny) who, having encountered a similar project involving a chimpanzee, decided to teach the gorilla American Sign Language a project that was to become her life's work. By 1985 Koko had a vocabulary of some 500 words and used over a hundred different ones each day.
Just before her 12th birthday she always had a party Penny asked Koko what she would like as a gift; she replied 'cat'. That wasn't too surprising; she had had stories read to her for years, and her favourites were Puss in Boots and Three Little Kittens. Cat picture books were her favourites, other than ones with pictures of gorillas. A sturdy toy cat was ordered, but didn't arrive in time, so was saved for Christmas. But when it was given to Koko she didn't like it at all and refused to have anything to do with it. She wanted a real cat a pet.
About six months later three kittens were brought in, having been abandoned by their mother and raised by a Cairn terrier dog. They were shown to Koko and her preference was for a tailless tabby possibly because gorillas don't have tails either. After another visit a few days later the preference was confirmed and the kitten, after staying overnight, became a permanent resident of Penny's quarters, which were quite close to Koko's enclosure. While living with Penny, the kitten was taken to visit the gorilla each evening: and Koko named him All Ball. Later he began to visit Koko on his own, and despite Penny's apprehension and the fact that All Ball could be quite aggressive, Koko was always gentle with him and seemed to love him despite his unruly nature. 'Koko love Ball,' she signed. She treated him as her baby, carrying him on her back as she would a gorilla baby, combing and petting him and keeping him clean. She tried to teach him gorilla games, but All Ball didn't understand them; nevertheless he received plenty of warmth, affection and attention.
One foggy morning in December 1984 All Ball was run over by a car and died instantly, having escaped from the gorilla enclosure; he was only a few months old. Koko was told straight away that she wouldn't see him again, and was distressed. News of the tragedy spread quickly, and thousands of people sent letters, cards, photos and pictures. Everyone felt that Koko should have a new kitten, ideally for the approaching Christmas.
That proved much more difficult than expected, as not many kittens were around in winter, especially Manx ones, which is what Koko had indicated she would like again. Eventually a breeder of Manx cats heard about the quest and called around his contacts until he located a litter in Southern California. There was a further delay, but eventually the kitten was ready and was delivered one day in March 1985. He was a red tabby; red is Koko's favourite colour and she was delighted with him! She named him Lipstick (pictured left).
I don't know how long Lipstick was with Koko or what became of him, but at some point there was a third kitten called Smoky (right). Koko now  has a companion of her own species, called Michael, two years younger and like a brother to her. A third gorilla, Ndume, was obtained more recently and could be a partner for Koko. To help in the preservation of gorillas, a reserve is being created in Maui, Hawaii, and when it's ready Koko and her friends will move there.
This account is summarised from Koko's Kitten by Dr Francine Patterson, with photos by Dr Ronald H. Cohn,
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Our featured feline at the head of the page: your companion through Feline Fragments is Maggie. She came as a kitten from Powys Cat Rescue. One of their volunteers had seen her wandering around, apparently uncared for, and thought her rather young to be just left to roam. The person 'responsible' for her said she 'didn't care', and so the youngster was taken in for rehoming. Only about 4 months old when I brought her home in 2003, she was a self-assured soul, probably because of her early experience, and was soon climbing all the available trees in the garden. She was a determined hunter in her earlier days, and was usually outside, but now prefers snoozing unless the weather is good. She has superb whiskers and as the photo shows, loves getting into things! (see it here without the puzzle effect)
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