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Koko the Gorilla Cradles a (New) Kitten

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The story of Koko the gorilla’s pet kitten is a famous one – you may have even read about in elementary school. The Gorilla Foundation’s female ape, who uses sign language and flash cards to communicate, had indicated before her birthday party in 1984 that she wanted a cat, and so she adopted All Ball, a gray tabby, and treated him as her own.

Sadly, All Ball died in a car accident, but Koko, who will turn 39 this year, still very much enjoys the company of kittens. She got a visit last September from a litter of five orphans, thanks to the help of Gorilla Foundation volunteer Janis Turner.

The 6-week-old kittens, two orange-and-white and three gray-and-white, were first introduced to Koko from outside her yard. Volunteers each held a kitten in their hands to show the gorilla who she was about to meet.

“Something fascinated her about Tigger, one of the orange ones,” Turner tells “Koko purrs. I get chills just thinking about it. She does this deep purr and she’s so gentle and has this loving looking in her eye.”

When her primary caretaker, Dr. Penny Patterson, brought the crated kittens inside Koko’s living area, she responded immediately to Tigger again, as is her nature – she knows what she likes and she’s quite particular about it. Koko picked up her new friend out of her crate and cradled her in her arms.

“Kittens are so calm around Koko because she has that motherly instinct,” Turner says. “Koko and the kittens intuitively are very relaxed together.”

That maternal instinct has yet to be used for any true child of her own, though Koko has a strong desire for her own gorilla baby.

Larry Wong, director of donor relations at the Gorilla Foundation and former assistant caregiver to Koko, says that Koko has communicated to Dr. Patterson that she wants her own child. Though she’s technically still able to become pregnant, even at her age, it may not be possible because she “sees the male gorillas as brothers and roommates and playmates.”

The foundation is exploring other opportunities, including adopting an orphan gorilla baby from a European zoo.

“It’s just an endless quest for her to have her own baby,” Wong says. “She’s such a great mom, with the most amazing, empathetic, nurturing soul.”

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