Koko, Gorilla Who Mastered Sign Language, Dies at 46

“She was beloved and will be deeply missed,” The Gorilla Foundation says in a statement

Koko, the beloved gorilla who mastered sign language, has died. She was 46.

“Koko — the gorilla known for her extraordinary mastery of sign language, and as the primary ambassador for her endangered species — passed away yesterday morning in her sleep at the age of 46,” The Gorilla Foundation announced in a press release.  “Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”

According to the foundation, Koko was a western lowland gorilla born Hanabi-ko on July 4, 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo. Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson taught her sign language the following year, and then moved her to Stanford in 1974 to establish The Gorilla Foundation. She later moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Koko was featured in various documentaries and appeared on the cover of National Geographic twice. The first cover in October 1978 famously featured a photograph the gorilla had taken of herself in a mirror.

Koko had several famous friends — in 2001, the late Robin Williams visited the gorilla and they engaged in a tickle fight. Betty White and Mr. Rogers also took a photo with the beloved primate.

“Her impact has been profound and what she has taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities will continue to shape the world,” said the foundation. “The foundation will continue to honor Koko’s legacy and advance our mission with ongoing projects including conservation efforts in Africa, the great ape sanctuary on Maui, and a sign language application featuring Koko for the benefit of both gorillas and children.”