The Bizarre Nipple Obsession Of Koko The Gorilla
Humans love to make animals do shit that only humans do. It's kind of our thing. The very moment we see any animal, especially a baby one, we start to wonder what kind of our baggage we can throw on them to make more sense of our meaningless role in this swirling existential hellstorm we occupy. Get our hands on a puppy? Let's make it do something that humans already hated to do: shake hands. Cats, in general, by no means have any business living beside of us, most notably because they palpably hate our guts, but that doesn't stop us from designating a cute little place for them to shit inside of our house and give them controlled substances to get them high AF just like us.
But perhaps no animal in that great kingdom has been subjected by our relentless desire to tattoo ourselves on them than primates. And perhaps none more famously than Koko, the signing, English-language-understanding sensation that captured the heart of America. There was just one problem ... Koko was aggressively interested in the nipples that lay outside that American heart.
A Time Before the Fetish
Koko the gorilla, was born on July 4th, 1971, at the San Francisco Zoo. But instead of getting the already shitty treatment of being a gorilla in a zoo, stared at by fanny packed people from Ohio, she was quickly taken under the wing of zoo staff and trainers to get busy learning sign language and English. At least Koko was born into captivity, where she was spared the bummer of being removed out of the jungle where you can just run around and shit on stuff and lay in a tree and scratch your asshole all day to be thrown into an elementary school classroom beneath a motivational poster of a bird quite literally flying free in its natural habitat while you suck down Gorilla Gogurt while you stare longingly out the window.
But somehow, Gorilla Summer School worked, and Koko walked out of that fucker knowing how to sign something close to 1000 signs and understood possibly 2000 English words. Most disappointingly, though, is that not once does anybody describe how Koko performed in PE, where I'd assume she threw dodgeballs through classmates like cannonballs in a Looney Tunes cartoon. After gracing the cover of National Geographic, Koko became a sensation. Americans were in love with the idea of a "talking" gorilla and became even more infatuated when Koko "adopted" a pet kitten to raise on her own.
We collectively did what we do as a species, tried to understand a remarkable, beautiful, mysterious thing only through our own lens and quickly came to realize that maybe, just perhaps, a few things get lost in translation when doing so. Sometimes, those few things just so happen to be that teaching a gorilla to "speak" may also open up a Pandora's Box where that gorilla really only ever wants to say, "Hey, show me your goddamn nipples already, dammit."
A Thing for the Nipple
The main trainer in Koko's life was a woman named Francine "Penny" Patterson. She was there from the jump to care for Koko and began teaching her to listen and speak back to us. Penny is clearly one of those rare people that don't shit their pants when they're beside an animal that can pull you apart like string cheese if you blink in a way they don't like. Like the dude who kicked it with grizzlies before the grizzlies remembered they were grizzlies and decided they didn't want a random ass jabroni hanging out at their grizzlies thing anymore, so they used their status as grizzlies, earth's walking wood chippers with buzzing chainsaws bolted to the side of them on the legs of those robots that are going to eventually kill us all, and removed him from their cool gang.
For what seems to be the first big chunk of Koko's life, she was relatively "normal." In that, she was a talking gorilla that had a pet kitten who hung out with Flea and Robin Williams. Penny had seemingly helped raise a well-rounded gorilla that at least kept her weirdest shit under control like the rest of us do. But, like many of us, Koko started to get into some weird shit around the time she reached her 20s. Much like how one day you might go to sleep as a perfectly normal 19-year-old, then wake up on the morning of your 20th with the burning, insatiable desire to just start using "dope" in conversation regularly. What's even worse, you think it's normal. You think it's cool. You just say it and say it until sometime, years down the line, it is extracted like a cancerous tumor of youthful bad taste by the experienced surgeon known as time, plopped into a tin tray beside a cancerous bulb of your love of Nelly and Wedding Crashers. For Koko, her bullshit manifested in an infatuation with nipples.
Koko reportedly just loved the things. She craved to see them and would routinely use her access to our language to demand food and nips. Like a hairy killer baby that weighs as much as a Honda, Koko would steer interactions towards her insistence that she gets to see some nipples, and fast. This became problematic for various reasons, but most notably, because it's not a common thing for gorillas in this kind of situation to request and raised many questions about how, or why, Koko developed an appetite for aggressive sexual harassment. This became extremely clear during a 1998 AOL chat with the gorilla, where she became the internet's first creepy nude solicitor from the animal world.
A Gorilla has Entered the Chat
In the most 90's ass shit ever, Penny took Koko into an AOL chatroom sometime in 1998, and it kind of went off the rails in the most prescient manner imaginable. A complete horndog steers the discourse entirely off the course in pursuit of nudes. Just one search through the chat transcript for the word "nipple," and you'll see it pops up a whopping 14 times all told. In fact, it's damn near the first thing that comes out of Koko's mouth:
PENNY: Hey, Cutie.
Penny swivels Koko's chair around so they face each other.
PENNY: Let me explain what we're doing.
PENNY: We're going to be on the phone with a lot of people who are going to ask us questions...
KOKO: Nipple. (Koko sometimes uses 'nipple' as a 'sounds like' for 'people.')
They don't even make it five lines in before Koko wants some nipple action. Penny quickly tries to write this off as some linguistic disconnect, but as we'll come to find out, it's probably just because the gorilla got this creepy desire for the human nipple along her journey. Like the absolute worst person in a Twitch chat, Koko just kept spamming her bullshit. They went on to ask her about what was for dinner:
AOL: What will she do now when we get off the phone? What does she eat for dinner?
KOKO: Candy hurry... candy.
PENNY: She'll probably be very pleased to have her dinner. She's asking me for 'candy' right now. After dinner.
KOKO: Candy hurry.
PENNY: She has vegetables for dinner... raw vegetables...
PENNY: Yes, like a big salad.
Again, Penny tries her best to steer this back into the territory of not having trained a gorilla to demand access to nipples at all times, but it's looking even worse here. It's pretty clear that Koko's general diet is a double-dose of concern because she apparently has candy for dinner and then nipple for dessert. Penny here is like the slightly sober friend trying to talk their way out of an arrest when the cops are probing the shitfaced one for the real series of events.
Cop: So that wasn't you who drove the forklift into the Jimmy John's and shit inside the place?
Drunk Friend: Fuck yes it was. FUCK JIMMY JOHN!
Penny: What he's actually saying is that he was just there to send a note under the door to thank the employees for their great work.
Drunk Friend: Actually I kidnapped Jimmy John himself and have him at home in one of those carnival dunk tanks sitting above like forty piranhas.
Penny: He's having vegetables for dinner.
Drunk Friend: Nipple.
One look through the entire chat, and you'll see that Koko constantly guides the conversation towards nipples and routinely ignores just about everything else. Could this be the case of a gorilla just trying to speak to people and having an incredibly limited vocabulary? That's possible. But according to a 2005 lawsuit, it's actually because she had been exposed to a love for them by the handlers that were training her.
Koko's Complicated Lasting Image
Koko became the center of a sexual harassment lawsuit in 2005 when two employees at Penny's foundation came forward with more details about the primate's problematic obsession. In the lawsuit, they alleged that Penny directed them to expose themselves to Koko. Penny went so far as to say, "Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples." The lawsuit paints the bizarre picture of a gorilla that was conditioned to see and enjoy nipples as a part of its usual routine. When the women refused to reveal themselves and later brought the authorities' attention to other problems within the gorilla's space, they were eventually let go.
Though the lawsuit would eventually be settled out of court, these details and the AOL chat that preceded it show a slightly darker history to the legacy of Koko, who died back in 2018. While we certainly cannot pin this behavior on Koko herself, the entire saga leads to questions about the entire scientific experiment's ethics. It's one thing for us to own pets. They bring us joy, they are fun, they make us feel good. All undeniable truths. But when we start really screwing with them on a mental level, especially those with an extremely high intellectual capacity, to begin with, it makes you wonder if we don't start really putting too much of our human garbage into them in the process.
There is no real way of knowing how exactly Koko developed this love for the nipple, but there is perhaps one absolute certainty in all of this: if we must go ahead with these kinds of experiments on a beautiful creature like a gorilla, let's make sure that whoever's training the animal imprints something we can all agree on, like a basic human thing that we can all totally agree on, into the animal's psyche during the process. Give that gorilla a love for five-layer nachos so that whenever the gorilla enters the chat, it can't stop demanding to get its hands on a smokin' hot pile of five-layer nachos before it takes any of our stupid questions into consideration.
AOL: So what did you do today, Bongo?
Bongo: Dreamt about nachos.
Penny: He had a wonderful day in the garden.
Bongo: That's bullshit. My day has sucked because I haven't had a single plate of nachos. Give me nachos.
Penny: He's so happy you're all here with us.
Penny: Flowers. He said flowers. Just because.
Bongo: Jesus Christ.
Bongo left the chat.
Top image: Ron Cohn/Koko.org