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The Messy Case of Koko the ‘Talking Gorilla’

Welcome to the first season of VICE World News’ new podcast series “A Show About Animals.”

Show Description: 

In the 1970s, a young psychologist named Penny Patterson shocked the world by announcing that she’d taught a gorilla sign language. Koko the “talking gorilla” quickly became world-famous and widely beloved—with friends like Mr. Rogers and Robin Williams. But then it got messy.

Because Koko was part of a bigger movement where scientists tried to investigate whether animals could use human language. Everyone involved had something to prove, and things often went off the rails.

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This is a story about a group of people trying to bridge the divide between humans and other animals— and how they tore each other apart in the process. It’s also the first season of our new series “A Show About Animals,” from VICE World News. 

TRAILER: Project Koko 

In 1972 a Stanford graduate student named Penny Patterson meets a young gorilla named Koko at the San Francisco Zoo, sets out to teach her sign language, and proceeds to turn the world on its head. This is the first season of our new podcast “A Show About Animals.” Drops November 3, 2021.

EPISODE 1: A Talking Gorilla

Description: It’s the early 1970s, and grad student Penny Patterson sets out to investigate a big question: Is language a uniquely human skill? So she begins an ambitious experiment—with the help of a young gorilla named Koko. Pretty soon, Penny says Koko is learning sign language. But some doubt Penny’s version of events. 

EPISODE 2:  A Gorilla Who Lied

Koko is learning signs at lightning speed, and Penny’s getting all kinds of attention for her work. But defining language isn’t exactly straightforward. And now, the San Francisco Zoo wants Koko back. 

EPISODE 3: Uptown Chimp

A rival ape language experiment takes shape. Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University, moves a chimp into a brownstone, names him Nim Chimpsky, and hires an entire team to teach him sign language. Can a chimp create a sentence?

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EPISODE 4: Nim Chimpsky from the Bronx

Nim the chimp moves uptown into a picturesque mansion in the Bronx. But the dysfunction continues and the experiment only gets harder to manage. And Herb reveals a shocking conclusion.

EPISODE 5:  “A Witch Hunt”

The claws come out at a major science conference in New York, throwing into question the field of animal language research and the future of Project Koko.

EPISODE 6: Nipplegate

Penny Patterson focuses on Koko’s future, including trying to find her a mate. But former foundation staffers say behind the earnest headlines and cheery videos coming out of the Gorilla Foundation, Koko’s world is way more complicated.

EPISODE 7:  “Man Is Stupid.”

Koko addresses the world at the Paris Climate Conference—and she’s not too impressed with humankind. When she passes away a few years later, her legacy is uncertain and often contested. 

EPISODE 8: I Just Knew I Was a Chimp

So… can we talk to animals? We look back at what we can learn from the ape language research experiments, and what it says about humans.

EPISODE 9: A Trip to the Zoo

We hit the road to meet Ndume, the last living gorilla who had been part of the Gorilla Foundation. But we’re in for a wild surprise. 

CREDITS:

A Show About Animals is hosted and reported by Arielle Duhaime-Ross.

Our producers are Julia Nutter and Pete Lang Stanton. Our production assistant is Leily Rezvani.

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Sound design and original score by Pran Bandi with additional support from Steve Bone.

Annie Aviles is our Executive Editor. 

Kate Osborn is our Executive Producer and the VP of Vice Audio. 

Special thanks to Maximo Anderson for fact-checking.