Adam's Reviews > Koko's Kitten

Koko's Kitten by Francine Patterson
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Sep 17, 09

bookshelves: nonfiction, childrens-books
Read in January, 1993

I originally rated this book five stars because it moved me to tears. Then I saw a couple of documentaries about Koko. It turns out that Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson is an incompetent psychopath who doesn't know the first thing about primatology. She says things like, "I don't care what the critics say. I'm not 'humanizing' Koko, I'm peopleizing her." She also slaps a very young Koko in the face when she "misbehaves" (ie, acts like a gorilla and plays rough with Michael, another gorilla). Even the way she teaches her sign language is insane. You can't sign "water" while saying the word "water" and expect a gorilla to understand what that means. You need to model water for them in some way, show them water, give them water to drink, etc.

Also, Dr. Penny claims that since Koko's fingers can't make the same signs as people's, Koko doesn't do ASL, she does "GSL" (Gorilla sign language). What this actually means is Dr. Penny has total control of what Koko is saying, since she interprets it all herself. When Koko signs "pink," Dr. Penny claims that is the gorilla way of expressing shame. When Michael signs "black," then signs "red," Dr. Penny explains that he is telling of how black men (Africans) killed his family.

I have no doubt that Koko, Michael, and Ndume (the gorillas Dr. Penny "studied") are sensitive, intelligent creatures. However, the idea that they can communicate using sign language in a perfectly human, one-for-one speech relationship is insane. But Dr. Penny doesn't seem to realize that, or seem to realize that there might be any differences between gorillas and humans. Which is perhaps not surprising, since she has a degree in developmental psychology, not primatology. She treats Koko like the daughter she never had, and in the creepiest ways. For instance, she raises Koko and Michael to eventually be lovers and mate. When she learns (or intuits) that two gorillas raised together regard each other as brother and sister, and mating is not going to happen, she gets Koko involved with video dating and has Koko sign, based only on looking at male gorilla images on a TV, whether or not she likes the guy. Really? Don't gorillas react to ... I don't know ... scent, or personal interaction? Well, apparently they do, because Koko's potential mate Ndume and she haven't been hitting it off either. Oh, and why did she start video dating? Because when Dr. Penny was in her early 40s, Koko "signed to her that she wanted a baby." Really, Dr. Penny? Really?
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