Celebrity gorilla Koko died in her sleep this week at age 46, the Gorilla Foundation announced today. Koko, a western lowland gorilla, was famed for her knowledge of sign language and ability to understand human speech. “Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy,” the foundation said in a statement. “She was beloved and will be deeply missed.”
Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo on July 4, 1971; her full name was Hanabi-ko, Japanese for “fireworks child,” in honor of her birthdate. Taken in at a young age by animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson, she learned a modified form of American Sign Language and famously was featured on the cover of National Geographic with her pet kitten.
Others in the animal research community, however, raised questions about the ethics of humanizing gorillas, who may find it difficult or impossible to return to a more natural lifestyle after living among people. In 2012, a number of Gorilla Foundation employees resigned over complaints about the gorillas’ care and diet, as well as conditions in the workplace.
During happier times in her life, Koko met a number of human celebrities including Robin Williams and Mr. Rodgers, but the one collaboration we’ll remember in particular is the time she tooled around on a bass with the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Flea. Bass wasn’t even her only instrument: She also learned to (sort of) play the recorder, a skill believed to demonstrate a level of breath control not previously known in gorillas.
Watch a clip of Koko’s tête-à-tête with Flea below, via the Chili Peppers’ YouTube.