Monkey business: Gorilla’s message about global warming was staged

kokoA recent video featuring a gorilla named Koko appearing to use sign language to warn man of the dangers of global warming was staged, and animal communication experts say there is no way a gorilla could comprehend the complexities of global warming.

The video, shown at December’s Paris climate change conference, shows Koko use sign language to say things like “I am gorilla, I am flowers, animals, I am nature… Man Koko love… but man… man stupid… Koko cry, time hurry, fix Earth…”

The video was produced by a French environmental group and the gorilla Foundation, which cares for Koko the gorilla and notes on its website that the video was produced “with a script” and “edited from a number of separate takes, for brevity and continuity.”

Animal communication experts say the video is misleading.

“This group has been really upping the ante for making incredible exaggerated claims for her comprehension,” Barbara King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary and the author of “How Animals Grieve,” told

King also worries that the ad, by exposing the idea of ape communication to ridicule, could undermine views about primates’ abilities.

“Koko is fabulous as she is. No one has to exaggerate. Scientists who do that — it hurts our credibility. It really does.”

Although primates like gorillas can learn hundreds of words, there is no good evidence that they can learn grammar, according to Arizona State University Psychology Professor Clive Wynne.

That includes even the simplest grammar like word order, for instance the difference between “dog bites man” and “man bites dog.”

On tests to distinguish terms like those, even one of the world’s smartest apes got the right answer 57 percent of the time – barely better than guessing. And that involved overly-generous grading by the trainers, Wynne notes.

But while primates haven’t been able to learn grammar, they can do impressive things once thought impossible.

“Koko shows definite comprehension of spoken English,” King said. Koko knows an impressive 2,000 words and uses them to make requests and respond to questions.

“Koko can also come up with some pretty creative ways of putting two phrases together,” King noted. For example, Koko didn’t know the word for “ring” and reportedly combined two words she knew – “finger” and “bracelet” – to make her meaning clear.

Primates also show human-like grief, King said.

“There was one gorilla whose long-term mate and friend died in the zoo, and he first tried to revive her, even bringing her favorite food to her and putting it in her hand and poking her,” she said.

“And then at some point he seemed to come to a really stunning realization that his friend was not going to move. I don’t know if that’s a concept of death, but his behavior changed and he let out a very agonizing wail and stopped trying to revive her. Clearly something cognitive and emotional happened to him at that moment.”

But animal experts agree that climate change is way beyond the understanding of gorillas.

“A complex phenomenon like climate change is not understood by many humans, let alone an ape,” Sally Boysen, an Ohio State University psychology professor, told

Even if Koko could understand climate change, experts disagree about the effect of climate change on primates. Warming has nearly paused over the last 17 years, and increases in the greenhouse gas CO2 in the atmosphere have increased plant growth.

However, Gorillas are threatened by other environmental harms, which have reduced the number of gorillas to just around 100,000. The main causes are slash-and-burn methods to clear African forests for agriculture, killings by hunters, and development in their habitats.

That has left some subspecies like Mountain Gorillas critically endangered with under 1,000 individuals left.

But while primates face serious environmental challenges and have impressive mental abilities compared to other animals, it’s still best not to get global warming advice from a gorilla.


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