Koko, the Gorilla Famous for Knowing Sign Language, Dies at 46

Koko, the famous gorilla who gained fame throughout the '70s and '80s for her incredible intelligence and facility for language, died in a California gorilla preserve Tuesday, the Gorilla Foundation said. She was 46.

"The Gorilla Foundation is sad to announce the passing of our beloved Koko," the famous research center said in a press release Thursday, adding that Koko died in her sleep just weeks away from her 47th birthday on July 4.

Throughout her life, Koko mastered over 1,000 American Sign Language signs taught to her by her caretaker, which allowed her to express her feelings. She famously once showed joy after receiving a pet kitten and later showed sadness after it was hit by a car and killed.

She made headlines when she was featured by National Geographic as the magazine's 1978 cover girl (in a mirror selfie taken by herself, no less). The western lowland gorilla made several celebrity friends, including Robin Williams in 2001, trying on his glasses, showing him around and getting him to tickle her. They made faces at each other and Koko even seemed to recall seeing Williams in a movie.

In 2012, Koko amazed scientists when she learned to play the recorder, which not only proved mental acuity but also the fact that primates can learn to control their breathing — something that had previously been assumed beyond their abilities.

NPR reports that at her birth at the San Fransisco Zoo, Koko was named Hanabi-Ko — Japanese for "fireworks child," because of her Fourth of July birthday.

Through her communications and intelligence, Koko gained fans around the world who marveled at her ability to connect with humans.

"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," The Gorilla Foundation said in its statement.

Tributes from fans who grew up admiring and loving Koko flooded social media, including the thousands of comments commemorating the gorilla on the organization's Facebook post. At press time, the Gorilla Foundation's website with the press release announcing her death was experiencing technical difficulties due to high amounts of traffic.

"Legit bawling like a baby right now. This news just breaks my heart. From an early age I was fascinated with Koko and she taught me so much about love, kindness, respect for animals, and our planet," one Facebook commenter wrote.

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The Gorilla Foundation says it will honor Koko's legacy by working on wildlife conservation in Africa, a great ape sanctuary in Maui, and a sign language app. Those who want to share condolences can do so by emailing kokolove@koko.org.