Open Culture shares some funny and adorable videos of “The Celebrity Encounters of Koko the Gorilla,” in honor of her 43rd birthday today. (“Koko” is actually short for Hanabiko — Japanese for “fireworks child” because she was born on the 4th of July.)
We see Koko, who can communicate with an American Sign Language vocabulary of more than 1,000 words, meeting William Shatner, Robin Williams, and Leonardo DiCaprio. My favorite encounter — and apparently hers as well — is when she met Fred Rogers. Koko didn’t recognize Captain Kirk, but she knew who Mister Rogers was and, like all intelligent creatures, she loved him:
Koko was a fan of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and when the man himself came to meet her, she helped him do what she had seen him do hundreds of times — she took off his shoes.
Our cousin Koko is fascinating in part because of her way with words. When she was just a teenager, she begged for a kitten for her birthday, naming her first pet “All Ball,” which was a brilliantly apt name for a kitten. She didn’t know the sign for a ring, but she knew “bracelet” and she knew “finger,” so Koko began to call rings “finger bracelets.”
And when shown a video of an earthquake, Koko described what she saw as best she could: “Darn darn floor bad bite. Trouble trouble.”
The band Daniel Amos took that as the title of their 1987 album, “Darn Floor Big Bite,” a collection of songs around the theme described on the cover of the album:
Man: Describe an earthquake
Gorilla: Darn floor big bite
God: Describe Me
Man: A Roaring Lion and a Consuming Fire
And this was important to me, personally, because in 1987 I was a young evangelical kid who was just beginning to figure out that, despite what I’d been taught in church and youth group and Sunday school, I didn’t really have all the answers tied up neatly in a tidy little package.
I’d come across this weird band of musical chameleons and found in their songs a travelogue of the same journey I’d begun. Their early albums were filled with the End Times fervor of Southern California Jesus People from the 1970s, a familiar perspective for a kid like me, who’d gone to a private Christian school where we literally used Hal Lindsey’s works as textbooks for our “Bible” classes. But with the passing years, their songs seemed to grow dissatisfied with that otherworldly religion, introducing something wilder and more worldly. Lindsey and LaHaye and Larry Norman were displaced by a new syllabus of Blake and Milosz and Buechner, and I was eagerly reading along.
In the unattainable earth
Amazed in these half-light days
In the unattainable earth
Language is weak, but I keep on speaking
Of the unattainable …
I was given permission to wonder. Wonderment was, in fact, required. And so I began to set aside the pat and unsatisfying little package that insisted I already knew all the answers and all there is to know, and I began wondering. And that has been, well, wonderful.
Anyway, happy birthday Koko.
And many more.