By Kevin Connelly

On July 12, 1997, Koko celebrated a milestone anniversary. The world-famous kitten-loving gorilla, now 26 years old, has been communicating with humans through the use of sign language for 25 years. A generation of children who read about Koko in elementary school is now sharing Koko's story with their own children.

It was exactly 25 years ago, on the foggy morning of July 12, 1972, that Francine "Penny" Patterson first met Koko, a 20-pound female lowland gorilla who had just turned one year old. Patter-son was then a graduate student at Stanford University, and Koko was a resident of the San Francisco Zoo nursery. Their meeting marked the beginning of a unique interspecies communication project that is still going strong a quarter of a century later.

"I originally expected to work with Koko for only four or five years, as long as some other ape language studies had lasted," said Dr. Patterson, "but I quickly realized that my commitment to Koko would be for life." In 1972, no one knew whether or not a gorilla could learn to communicate using a human language.

But Koko's achievements with American Sign Language (ASL) exceeded all expectations. She produced her first recognizable signs within a few weeks. Within six months she was combining signs, asking questions, inventing gestures, spontaneously naming objects and talking to herself.

Patterson's work with Koko earned her National Geographic Society grants, the Rolex Award for Enterprise, the Preservation of the Animals World Society Award for Outstanding Professional Service, as well as seven awards for the book and video versions of Koko's Kitten. In 1978 and 1985 National Geographic articles about Koko featured photographs by Dr. Ronald H. Cohn, who has documented the project on film and videotape since that first day in 1972.

Over the years Koko's remarkable facility with language and her gentle love of kittens has captured the hearts and imaginations of the public, and has inspired millions of school children to read, write letters, and to learn more about gorillas and other endangered animals. Today, Dr. Patterson hopes that Koko's special appeal will also help change people's attitudes toward gorillas in those African countries where an alarming increase in commercialized hunting of gorillas for "bushmeat" poses a very serious threat to the species' survival.

Koko celebrated her special occasion at the secluded Gorilla Foundation facilities in Woodside, California, along with her two male gorilla companions, Michael and Ndume, while The Gorilla Foundation develops i on a 70-acre site on Maui.

Well wishers and supporters may contact The Gorilla Foundation by calling (800) ME-GO-APE, or by writing to Box 620-530, Woodside, CA 94062-9901. E-mail can be sent to . You can check out their Web site

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