Robin Williams' death hits gorilla friend hard

Posted at 10:53 PM, Aug 12, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-14 03:22:34-04

The death of actor Robin Williams saddened not only humans, but a female gorilla he had made friends with.

In 2001, Robin Williams was invited to meet Koko, the gorilla who communicates in sign language, at the  Gorilla Foundation near San Francisco in northern California. Koko's handlers had no idea what to expect, but they became very special friends.

Williams' visit was chronicled in a video by the Gorilla Foundation. In the video, Koko can be seen asking Williams to tickle her. Koko then tickled Williams and the two became friends. 

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Robin made Koko smile -- something she hadn't done for over 6 months, ever since her lifelong gorilla companion, Michael, passed away at the age of 27. But not only did Robin cheer up Koko, the effect was mutual, and Robin seemed transformed -- from a high-energy entertainer, into a mellow, sensitive, empathetic guy, who also happened to be really funny.

On Monday, when news broke of Williams' death, Koko and Drs. Penny Patterson and Ron Cohn were together when the phone calls began coming in about the sad event.  After the first call, Koko came to Patterson with an inquiring look on her face.  Patterson explained that "we have lost a dear friend, Robin Williams" Koko was quiet and looked very thoughtful, Patterson said.

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More phone calls about the news came in, and Koko overheard one from a former colleague who had worked with Williams while he filmed a public service announcement for The Gorilla Foundation in 2003. The colleague's voice broke at the end of the conversation.  About a half an hour later, Koko signed to Patterson:  "CRY LIP" (LIP is Koko's sign for woman).

At the end of the day, Koko became very somber, with her head bowed and her lip quivering.

"The Gorilla Foundation are all greatly saddened by the news of Robin William’s death, and would like to offer his family our deepest condolences. We would also like to honor his life, which was a profound gift to humanity -- and to other great apes like Koko -- by sharing the following video of Robin’s powerfully emotional meeting with Koko in 2001."

"Koko and Robin’s encounter is a supreme example of how humans and gorillas can overcome interspecies boundaries and express the highest form of empathy -- embracing differences. Robin’s ability to just 'hang out' with Koko, a gorilla, and in minutes become one of her closest friends, was extraordinary and unforgettable for Koko. We hope that it now becomes unforgettable for you too," the Gorilla Foundation wrote on their website.