In Memory of Koko

Gorillas in Films and Reality

Primates have featured in films for decades – the gorilla a leading “actor”.  Sadly, because of a lack of understanding on the part of writers and producers, the gorilla was most often portrayed as a monstrous killer.  As early as 1908, the Conan Doyle silent film, “The Great Murder Mystery” featured a killer gorilla.  Through the 1920’s and 1930’s numerous films continued to characterise gorillas as fearsome predators, including:  “The Gorilla” (silent film, 1927), “Stark Mad” (1929), “The Gorilla” (1930), the original “King Kong” (1933 – inspired a number of remakes, the most recent, 2005), “House of Mystery” (1934), the popular Clyde Beatty offering, “The Lost Jungle” (1934), in which a gorilla guards a lost city and its treasure, and “The Gorilla” (1939).  Thankfully, primatologist/naturalist Dian Fossey (1932-1985) – studying endangered gorillas in the mountain forests of Rwanda (1960’s to 1980’s) – identified true characteristics of gorillas.  Gorillas, while all individuals, are mainly shy and rarely aggressive, vegetarian members of family groups.  In Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey relates – on first contact with gorillas – it was the shyness of behavior that most impressed her.  David Attenborough helped to reinforce this fact in a segment of “Life on Earth” (1979), when he was filmed with playful baby mountain gorillas in Rwanda.  And Koko, the female west lowland gorilla raised by American animal psychologist Francine Patterson, from 1971 to Koko’s sad death recently at age 46, was another proof of gentle behavior.  From 1984 to 2015, Koko adopted and helped care for five kittens.  And Koko’s calmness and intelligence were basic to her ability to learn/use “Gorilla Sign Language” (GSL).

Today, endangered gorillas face numerous threats – habitat loss, poaching, political instability, rabies, and human viruses/health threats.  However, groups such as Gorilla Doctors work tirelessly to save the lives of wild mountain and eastern lowland gorillas.  Gorilla Doctors international team of veterinarians provides hands-on care to sick and injured gorillas in the wild.  And events such as the “Great Gorilla Run” in London (16th annual run, 2018) help to raise funds.


See also:

BBC Earth – “The Great Gorilla Wipeout”, by Nick Funnel

Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Mountain Gorillas, G. Eckhart  and A. Lanjouw, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008