Guest Columnist

Koko and the value of empathy

Koko with her caretaker Penny Patterson in the documentary “Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks.” MUST CREDIT: Ron Cohn, The Gorilla Foundation-Koko.org
Koko with her caretaker Penny Patterson in the documentary “Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks.” MUST CREDIT: Ron Cohn, The Gorilla Foundation-Koko.org

Koko has died. In her sleep. You remember Koko. She was a sign language-savvy western lowland gorilla born in the San Francisco Zoo on the Fourth of July, 1971, a wonderful creature who let us know that the difference between humans and animals is really very slight.

Koko knew happiness, and Koko knew grief, and she was able to communicate those feelings, just as we do. When her pet kitten All Ball died in 1984 she was asked what happened and her response was “cat, cry, have-sorry, Koko-love. She then paused for a moment, then signed unattention, visit me.”

Doesn’t get any clearer than that. And Koko wasn’t the only one crying. I don’t honestly know what we can learn from a gorilla, a fierce-looking creature with a very human capacity to express honest emotions. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything.

Here is where lightning streaks across the sky, where thunder erupts over our homes, and where we take cheap shots at our fellow man, the ones we know who show none of the understanding of a simple gorilla, or of the family dog for that matter. But let us refrain: no metaphors need apply. We are who we are whether or not we communicate.

In my youth I learned to be silent from farmers for whom I’d work in the summertime. In those far-off days baled hay was rectangular in shape with two lengths of twine encircling each bale longitudinally. When baling hay the clever guys stood on the wagon as it passed across hard golden fields, while the not-so-clever ones walked alongside, lifting 50 lb. bales from the ground, tossing them on to the wagon.

The clever ones knew how to stack the bales 8 feet high, in a way that prevented the bales from toppling over as the wagon moved along. Needless to say, I never stood on the moving hay wagon. I spent my time walking, daydreaming, falling in to a rhythm of fifteen steps, bending over, grabbing a bale by the twine, turning, tossing it onto the wagon, and moving on.

In those days farmers were far more reserved than they are now. To me they walked the edges of cowboy America; strong, quiet men, cigarettes hanging from damp edges of their lips.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

I would arrive at a farm where mornings inevitably came too early and where, for the next eight hours, communication and human connection were rare, except when the farmer’s wife or daughter brought lunch out to the field. That was when I first truly understood that women are much better communicators than men. I loved those lunches, because the women spoke, asked about school, talked about church, and just generally seemed to understand what was important.

Women, and perhaps all females, seldom have to reach far to grasp empathy, compassion and, for lack of a better word, love. I saw this in my mother. I saw it for many decades in my boss. And I still see it in the girl sitting across from me, the one I first met more than a half century ago. This truth about females is something we all know, but rarely acknowledge. If we did, world order would fall in to chaos, and all of the old guys who make the rules would have to find real work. I will miss Koko.

• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

CONTINUE READING

Want to join the conversation?

Consider subscribing to TheGazette.com and participate in discussing the important issues to our community with other Gazette subscribers.

Already a Gazette or TheGazette.com subscriber? Just login here with your account email and password.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.