Prime Mate

Catching up with an undersexed talking gorilla

Image: Dr. Ronald Cohn/Gorilla Foundation

Q In your first column for Mother Jones, in 1993, you wrote that you could answer questions about Koko, the signing gorilla. How is she, and does she still have a pet cat?
Cynthia McCown, Grosse Pointe, Mich.

AI had totally forgotten about Koko, the gorilla who speaks sign language, until you mentioned that I once cited my subscription to Gorilla magazine (now discontinued) as part of my qualifications for this job.

I called the Gorilla Foundation and spoke with Kevin Connelly, who’s the director and Koko’s publicist. I am happy to report that Koko is doing well. She is nearly 27 years old and knows about 1,000 signs and about 2,000 words of spoken English. She mostly talks about food. Her kitten, Smokey, is now a big fat 13-year-old cat.

Kevin says that, although they’ve tried to measure Koko’s intelligence using the Stanford-Binet test, the cultural biases of such a test for a gorilla render it somewhat inaccurate. She enjoys watching live-action animal films like Fly Away Home, Babe, and Free Willy. Apple built a computer for her a while ago, but she’s not using it much now: They’re trying to get her to focus on mating.

Koko selected her own potential mate by viewing videotapes of candidates from different zoos. She indicated her level of interest in each one with a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, and actually kissed the screen if she really liked them. One of her favorites was Endume, from the Cincinnati Zoo. He is now on loan, living right near her in Woodside, Calif. Kevin says there have been “positive signs.” When I asked what that meant, he said, “Touching each other and hitting each other,” at which point I welled up with tears, not having heard such a romantic tale since Love Story.

So, Koko watches videos, talks a lot about food, knows how to use a computer, has a fat cat, and is not having sex. If I could use a computer, my life would be the exact same, in case you were wondering.

QThe human ear can hear only a certain range of tones, and Western music reduces those to a relatively small number of acceptable musical pitches. Why haven’t we run out of songs yet?
Ali Davis, e-mail

AI wrote to Ringo Starr in search of an answer, figuring here’s a guy who, between the Beatles, his solo career, and Ringo Starr’s All Star Band, has sung more songs than most and probably has to believe there’s more where those came from just to get up in the morning.

I know how he must feel. I mean, I’m not saying that I’m like a Beatle. I’m only a comic. But someone once told me that there are really only three jokes. This gives me nightmares. Anytime I see a Marx Brothers, Monty Python, or old Woody Allen film—all of which have a remarkable JPM (jokes per minute)—part of me enjoys them very much and part of me shudders at the prospect that they have unfairly used up all of the jokes.

Anyway, I heard back from his publicist that Ringo was skiing, which, let’s face it, means we’ll probably never hear from the guy again. So, I called James Ross, a former conductor of the Yale Symphony Orchestra and an internationally known musician who has played french horn with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He now conducts and plays french horn in Spain, where he helped create the Galician School for Young Orchestral Musicians. We grew up across the street from each other, and he tried to hit me with a trash can lid once, so I knew he’d take my call.

Oddly, he didn’t seem at all concerned about an upcoming shortage of songs. He says that there’s more than just notes—there’s words, rhythm, and tempo—and that there’s not just a melody, there’s harmony underneath.

He also pointed out that the entire classical music industry is built on people playing the same notes.

It sounds like musically, we’re covered. But the possibility of a joke shortage remains a real threat.

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