Gorilla grieving death of friend didn’t laugh in four months, then Robin Williams tickled her

Gorilla grieving death of friend didn’t laugh in four months, then Robin Williams tickled her

Measuring the impact that Robin Williams had on the world is almost impossible. The comedic genius had the magical ability of making people laugh, even when happiness was absent.

But it wasn’t just people whose lives he impacted.

There was one extraordinary creature who was tickled by Williams, who helped her laugh while she was grieving the loss of her companion.

In 2001, the late Robin Williams made a very special visit to Koko, a western gorilla who was fluent in American sign language (ASL).

Koko, who was 46 when she sadly passed away in her sleep in 2018, is still the world’s most popular gorilla.

Many of us will remember a 1985 National Geographic cover that shows a giant black gorilla, softly cradling a tiny kitten, who was her 13th birthday present.

Asking for a pet cat, keepers at the Gorilla Foundation offered her instead a stuffed toy which she refused.

Ron Cohn, a biologist with the foundation, told the Los Angeles Times that “we gave her a life-like stuffed animal and she was terribly upset.” He adds she kept signing “sad.”

And then on July 4, 1984, she was given a tailless ball of fluff – a Manx kitten – who because of her fuzziness, she named “All Ball.”

The then 230 lb. gorilla was extremely gentle with the tiny kitten and the two became best friends.

“They would play chase with each other, and she (Koko) would hold it and pet it,” Cohn said. “The cat reacted to her as she would a human, but she was pretty independent and would bite Koko or wriggle loose when she got tired of being babied.”

Cohn adds when All Ball wiggled away, Koko would sign, “Obnoxious. Cat.” 

In December of that same year, All Ball escaped from the cage she lived with Koko, and struck by a car on the highway, she died.

“When we told Koko, she acted like she didn’t hear us for about 10 minutes,” Cohn said. “Then she started whimpering, a distinct hooting sound that gorillas make when they are sad. We all started crying together.”

Cohn adds she folded her hands and rested them at the side of her head, meaning “Sleep. Cat.”

Since then, she became the fur mom to other fur or feathered babies including more cats, dogs and a rogue parrot, who Koko called “Devil Tooth” after it frightened her.


The gorilla who called herself “Queen,” also had another “pet.”

Michael, a silverback who was rescued as a baby after his mother was killed by poachers, joined Koko in 1976 at the sanctuary when he was only three.

Born in 1973 (Koko was born in 1971), Michael had a level of comprehension that was fascinating but heartbreaking. The Gorilla Foundation writes on its website, “Michael remembered the death of his mother again, and again. He described the bright red blood, the shock, the struggle and submission as strong arms carried him off while his mother lay slaughtered in the bush.  Michael never forgot his mother, the man who killed her, or his deep anguish.”

But Koko was always there to comfort Michael, who she treated like a sibling and student.

Along with the help of workers at the foundation, which supports preservation of gorillas around the world, Michael learned to sign and communicate.

The two would paint together – Michael’s work can be seen across the globe – watch TV shows and films,and listen to music.

After decades of living and growing together, Michael – the first male gorilla to use ASL – died of congestive heart failure. He was 28.

Koko, no stranger to grief, started mourning his loss and her friends at the preserve in Woodlands, California found her inconsolable.

That was when they decided to call in the expert.

Tickle time

“Hi, I’m Robin Williams. I recently had a mind-altering experience communicating with a gorilla, her name is Koko.” said the late comedian in a video shared by Koko’s keepers. “We shared something extraordinary. Laughter.”

Williams then explains the lovable gorilla understands spoken English and “uses over 1,000 signs to share her feelings and thoughts about daily events, life, love.”

“Even Death. It was awesome and unforgettable,” he adds.

Williams visited the grieving gorilla in 2001, hoping to lift her spirits.

According to her keepers, Koko “hadn’t laughed since losing her lifelong male gorilla companion, Michael, 4 months earlier.  Koko made a new friend that day who helped her feel happiness again.”

As expected, Koko – who remembered the Jumanji actor from a movie she just saw – went all fangirl on the star.

“You tickle,” she kept signing, which she followed with a hearty laugh the moment his fingers touched her belly or thighs.

The two also played chase, laughing and rolling around on the ground.

Then, she shamelessly picked through his pockets, examined his wallet, and stole the sunglasses from his face.

Before the star of Patch Adams left her enclosure, she took his hand and placed it against her face, saying “Koko love.”

“She had my sunglasses on, she turned away then she looked out the window. She looks great, they actually look great,” Williams joked of Koko, who placed the glasses above her nose and over her eyes.

When Robin Williams shockingly died in 2014, the Gorilla Foundation shared a video showing him and Koko sharing a special moment.

Koko’s understanding of emotions and her ability to communicate her wants and needs is a lesson in humanity. She served as a reminder that it’s primitive to believe only humans are capable of verbal expressions, or language, and we need to show our furry friends a lot more compassion.

Watching Robin Williams with this magnificent creature is a real gift. We love how he shows us that animals feel a depth of emotion, which can be helped with the kind of laughter only he could deliver.

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