Koko the Gorilla to Communicate Using Sign Language in Earth Day Chat

April 20, 1998

Dulles, VA and New York, NY, April 20, 1998 - In honor of the month long celebration of Earth Day, HEAVEN, which uses the power of the Net to foster community service and activism, and The EnviroLink Network, the online environmental community, announce today the first ever inter-species chat between humans and gorilla to be held on America Online and the web. Having studied American Sign Language for 25 years, Koko the gorilla has advanced further with language than any other non-human. In this unprecedented event, Koko will chat with denizens worldwide on Monday, April 27 at 7:00pm, EDT. AOL members can access the chat through America Online by going to HEAVEN (keyword: Hub Heaven) or AOL Live (keyword: AOL Live). They'll also be able to view a slideshow of Koko during the event. Non-AOL members will be able to participate in the live chat by going to The Envirolink Website at www.envirolink.org. Born in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, Koko learned to communicate with people under the tutelage of Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson. Using American Sign Language, Koko has a working vocabulary of over 500 signs and has demonstrated over 500 additional signs. She also understands approximately 2,000 words of spoken English. The Gorilla Foundation (www.gorilla.org) was established in 1976 to promote the protection, preservation and propagation of gorillas. Project Koko, which began in 1972, is a primary focus of the Foundation. The project involves teaching a modified form of American Sign Language to two lowland gorillas, Koko and Michael. Dr. Patterson's work with Koko for over 25 years is the world's longest uninterrupted interspecies communication project and the only one that involves gorillas. During the live chat, Dr. Patterson will answer questions directed to her as well as serve as Koko's interpreter. Dr. Patterson will sign questions posted to Koko who will in turn sign responses back to the doctor. Through this rare dialog between humans and a gorilla, event sponsors -- HEAVEN and The EnviroLink Network -- seek to highlight the advances being made in communicating with non-human primates as well as raise awareness to the plight of gorillas and the threats to their natural habitat in Africa. "Koko helps us learn more about our own humanity and better understand how all living things are connected," said Jenny Hansell, Director of Programming for HEAVEN. "HEAVEN's mission is to help people find ways to make the world better -- and talking to Koko will inspire us all to do what we can for the Earth's endangered species." "We're thrilled that our technology has enabled this type of connection with Koko and we're pleased to work with The Gorilla Foundation, EnviroLink and Heaven," said Katherine Borsecnik, Vice President of Network Programming for America Online. "This event is providing a once in a lifetime opportunity for millions of AOL members to tap into the knowledge and compassion these foundations and Koko have for saving endangered species." Lowland gorillas, whose natural habitat stretches from Cameroon to Zaire, are critically threatened by expansive logging practices and are alarmingly becoming the target of commercial "bush-meat" hunters who are killing vast numbers of gorillas and other great apes for meat that is considered a highly-prized delicacy for human consumption. Due to human interference in the environment the cousin to the lowland gorillas -- mountain gorillas -- now number less than 500.

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