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Thursday, April 17, 2008

If We Could Talk to the Animals

"When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again..." ~ William Beebe


I have always remembered this quote. It made quite an impression on me, ever since I was a little kid. You can see it engraved on a stone monument at the San Francisco Zoo, on the way to the gorilla habitat.

For some reason, it seems that the years of my childhood (and maybe yours, too) were filled with a lot of awareness about our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas. I remember watching Jane Goodall quite often on television and years later I had a chance to see Goodall speak at San Jose State. It was a wonderful experience just being in her presence and hearing her stories about the chimpanzees she studied that we all seemed to know so well.

I also remember reading and learning about Dian Fossey and her work with gorillas, especially her beloved Digit. Fossey's brutal murder by the people who were poaching her adopted family of mountain gorillas is something I haven't forgotten either.

But maybe the most influential and exciting person to me was Koko, the gorilla who could talk in American Sign Language, and who had a kitten named All Ball. I think lots of kids have a dream of talking to animals and wishing they could be the next Dr. Dolittle.

So here is an update for those of you with the same fond memories: Koko is alive and well and talking in her private home in Woodside, about 45 minutes south of San Francisco. The Boy was recently contacted to do some work with Koko's organization, The Gorilla Foundation, and it rekindled my memories of Koko and her story.

The Boy did not get to meet Koko or Dr. Patterson on this visit, but he did come home with some amazing videos of Koko and her life as a talking gorilla. There was one excerpt that was especially moving, of her friend Michael, another gorilla who learned ASL. I cannot embed this video, but I hope you will watch it. If you ever wondered if animals have feelings and memories, this should clear things up for you.

The saddest thing about reaquainting myself with Koko is learning that it is entirely possible that gorillas may be completely extinct in about 10 years. In our lifetimes. Please pass along the word, so that the quote at the beginning of my post doesn't come true for Koko and her kind. For our closest relations in the animal world.

PS. I think Koko's Foundation is looking for a director of fundraising. If you know of any experienced non-profit professionals who are skilled at fundraising and PR, let me know and I'll see if we can make a connection.


One last video. For all of you artists, human and otherwise...


AlexTangoFuego April 17, 2008 at 1:06 PM  

The elephant video made me cry...

It's hard for me to have hope when I see stuff like this. Hope for the future of humanity, the future of this planet, and all of the life forms we share with it. Life forms ultimately dependent on humanity - either our actions, or inactions, or both.

studio wellspring April 17, 2008 at 3:05 PM  

sigh. this is an emotionally delicate subject for me too. i have never been able to understand people's need to do anything but respect & appreciate animals.
when i was very young {my parents say before kindergarten} i went to a friend's b-day party at mcdonald's {my 1st time going there}. i'd never had a hamburger and when i tried a bite i spit it out. later on the drive home i asked my parents what is a hamburger & why do people like to eat it? we lived in rural arkansas, so it was as easy as pointing out the car window for my parents to show me the cows you see out there in the field are what goes into making a hamburger. i was horrified and i cried & cried ~ i absolutely couldn't grasp in my preschooler's mind that people would eat a sweet cow. i thought it was so cruel even then. as i grew up i learned to accept eating meat, but i have gone in & out of being a vegetarian many times. it's a tough one for me for sures.
anyway, thanks for bringing up this painful subject on the treatment of animals in general and esp gorillas ~ what incredible creatures that we should be cherishing not destroying!

tangobaby April 17, 2008 at 4:01 PM  

Hi Alex,

I know. It made me cry, too. I was dumbfounded by the simple beauty and intelligence of the elephant.

I think we need to try to have hope in whatever small ways we can, but I agree with you that it is very hard to be optimistic. So much is out of our control and the destruction of beautiful species has so much economic and political baggage behind it.

Hi Ms. Wellspring,

Oh, I can just picture your tiny blond preschool self being so sad and moved to help the cows! I am not surprised at all that you were so aware and gentle as a itty-bitty person. You are just taller now. ;-)

I have always had a very hard time going to the zoo. It has always made me very depressed for a number of reasons. Now that I realize the zoos are now almost a Noah's Ark for some of the world's creatures, I have a different take on them, although I wish they didn't have to exist at all.

I hope this post will be of interest to people who would like to donate or spread the word or be more involved in...anything. It doesn't have to be for Koko. It can be for elephants or tigers or whatever is important to them.

Relyn Lawson April 17, 2008 at 7:08 PM  

I wanted to share a gorilla story that your post reminded me of. When Sloane was nearly two, our family went to Washington D.C. While we were there we went to the National Zoo. The neatest thing happened when we visited the gorillas. There was a baby gorilla that had been born only 2 days before Sloane. They were the same size. I mean it; they matched in size, age, even temperament. You know how babies are so curious about and interested in other babies? Sloane was immediately fascinated with the gorilla, and he with Sloane. I do not exaggerate one bit when I tell you that they were both in awe of each other. They played together in a way that the casual observer would hardly know there was glass between them. Both babies pressed up against the glass and just played. They put their hands up to each others on the glass; palm to palm. They talked. I swear, they laughed. It was so intriguing, so incredible to see, that they drew a crowd. A big crowd and nobody else spoke. No one wanted to break the spell. We all just watched in awe. The gorilla mama watched carefully over her little one from the nearby corner. This Momma sat and smiled and cried. Just cried.

tangobaby April 17, 2008 at 11:52 PM  

Dear Relyn,

Thank you for sharing your beautiful, touching story with us. What an amazing thing you witnessed. I think you saw what is best about us, that on some level we can connect with all beings, and they with us.

I hope Sloane can go back to see her friend someday.

What a wonderful note to end my day on...thank you.


Annie Jeffries April 18, 2008 at 12:58 PM  

Hi Tangobaby -

I saw Jane Goodall at Occidental College in the mid-'70s. She truly is a presence. I had the same sort of chill when a year later Maya Angelou spoke at my commencement. Then Miss Angelou came to the university where I now work and I had the privilege of seeing her again.

I remember seeing Koko and kitty years ago and being moved almost to tears by the tenderness of the friendship, the absolute trust and gentleness.

Such a rich post you have given us today.

tangobaby April 18, 2008 at 4:31 PM  

Hi AnnieElf,

I agree with you--Goodall seems almost like a little angel. We hung on every word she said.

And to have met Maya Angelou, what a lucky girl you are.

Watching the videos of Koko holding and cuddling her cats (she's had several now) is incredible. She truly loves them. If you know a special child (or perhaps you are one yourself) you can buy the book Koko's Kitten, which talks about her and All Ball. We had the book and I remember loving it.

paris parfait April 20, 2008 at 2:04 PM  

Oh I hadn't heard about Koko in ages - well Woodside isn't a bad place to land, is it? Thanks for the update! xo