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You've probably heard of Koko over the years. Maybe you're seen a PBS
special on the internationally famous gorilla or read an article about her.
Once considered a controversial experiment in primate communication, Koko
now seems practically human when compared to other gorillas in the wild and
that is one of the wry points raised in this candid documentary by Barbet
Schroeder, a gifted filmmaker.
The day to day instruction and training you see Koko receiving from Dr.
Francis "Penny" Patterson in this intimate portrait is not the kid-friendly
portrait you'd expect. You get to see Koko on off days when she doesn't want
to sign with Penny, when she seems bored and restless with her daily
routine, or when she rebels against Penny's authority by engaging in minor
destructive acts within her living area. Her home, basically a bland,
institutional space with hardly any natural light, is depressing and there
are few scenes with Koko enjoying the outdoors freely. Despite Dr.
Patterson's assurances that she is making incredible breakthroughs in
communication between humans and apes, viewers may get the feeling that Koko
is being brainwashed through repetitious instruction. Her only other
exposure to gorillas is Michael, a young ape who is also being trained to
communicate using American sign language. Is Dr. Patterson raising a new
breed of gorillas who will only be able to sign with each other and research
scientists in a private facility of Stanford University? Can Koko, who was
once housed in the San Francisco Zoo, communicate with apes in the wild or
even zoo apes? The real problem is that Koko may not even think of herself
as a gorilla anymore. You have to wonder if she might not have been better
off at the San Francisco Zoo where she at least would have enjoyed more
outside activity, was able to relate to other gorillas, and was free of
The most sobering thought you are left with is the current state of gorillas
in the wild. Are they better off in zoos or research facilities instead of
running free in the wilds where they are fair game for poachers, hunters,
and the increasing crush of human progress?
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