Dan Murphy: The Legacy and Lessons of Koko

Though it's doubtful this is Koko, it's easy to see why these primates are considered intelligent. ( freeimages.com )

It’s a vignette I still remember vividly, even though I witnessed it nearly 30 years ago.

During a trip to a European trade show, I happened to be strolling around a small town in Denmark north of Copenhagen where a group of people in a local park were gathered in a large circle. Each one had a dog, and one by one, the dogs went into the center of the circle to respond to a series of commands: the usual sit, stay, lie down but also more sophisticated commands, such as take two steps and stop, lift and point one paw, turn completely around, etc.

Here’s the interesting part: No one spoke a word. All of the commands were delivered only by facial expression or minimal gestures. All of the dogs — and we’re talking a variety of both purebred and mutts of all sizes and shapes — that weren’t performing sat quietly at attention with their owners until it was their turn to enter the circle.

It was quite remarkable, and I remember thinking, damn! How can I get my next-door neighbors and their four barking fools to sign up for that program?

I recall that demonstration of canine “intelligence” as a counterpoint to the reaction following news that Koko, the iconic and much celebrated lowland gorilla who learned to communicate in American Sign Language, passed away in her sleep last week at the age of 46. Her death, while a sad occasion, provides an object lesson in how society’s attitudes toward the members of the animal kingdom have evolved over the decades.

As most people are at least vaguely aware, Koko, who was born on the Fourth of July in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, “taught us about the emotional capacity of gorillas and their cognitive abilities,” according to the Gorilla Foundation. It was an impact that the foundation proclaimed “will continue to shape the world.”

Like those Danish dogs, Koko certainly amazed the public with her abilities to use sign language and was featured on a famous National Geographic magazine cover with a photo she took of herself in a mirror. According to a tribute story on NPR.org, Koko “made a fast friend in comedian Robin Williams, trying on his glasses and getting him to tickle her. Then they made faces at each other.”

Okay, no offense to the late and very talented Mr. Williams, but it didn’t take a trained gorilla to get him to make faces and launch into one of an array of character voices he perfected during his years performing stand-up. Robin Williams was BORN making faces and tickling anyone who stood still long enough.

More importantly, the tributes to Koko, though well-intentioned, assigned her a role with which even Robin Williams in all his iconic tear-jerker films shouldn’t be assigned.

The “top comment” posted on the Gorilla Foundation’s Facebook page stated that, “This news just breaks my heart. Koko … taught me so much about love, kindness, respect for animals, and our planet."

What? No!!
You don’t learn about love and kindness from animals; you learn it from parents, family, friends, a spouse, children — other people!

We don’t learn about the purpose (and value) of obedience from watching a bunch of dogs respond to their owners’ silent commands. We internalize it as a learned behavior from interactions with and role modeling by the aforementioned humans responsible for influencing our upbringing.

We might express the love and affection we (ideally) experience as children with the pets that share our households, but that is a transference of emotions, not a unique “teachable moment” generated by an animal.

Even the smartest animals — including Koko — are reacting to environmental stimuli, responding instinctively to the situations they encounter.

It’s appropriate to label animals’ responsive behaviors as a sign of “intelligence,” broadly defined. But until gorillas or other primates start making their own cameras with which to make photos, their remarkable and seemingly sophisticated behaviors are triggered by training, not native ability.

The day we discover a circle of dogs silently commanding people to perform a series of maneuvers is the day I’ll acknowledge that we need to look to animals, not people, for the important lessons in life.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.