(ABC NEWS)- Koko, the western lowland gorilla who learned sign language and became a pop-culture phenomenon, died Thursday morning at the age of 46.
The Gorilla Foundation, headed by Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson, the animal psychologist who taught Koko sign language, announced that the famed super-simian died in her sleep at the organization’s preserve in Woodside, California.
“Koko touched the lives of millions as an ambassador for all gorillas and an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She was beloved and will be deeply missed,” the Gorilla Foundation said in a statement.
Born on the Fourth of July in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, Koko was loaned to Patterson at the age of 1 for a research project at Stanford University on interspecies communications. At birth, she was given the name Hanabi-ko, Japanese for “Fireworks Child,” but she soon became widely known by her nickname, Koko.
When the San Francisco Zoo wanted Koko back for breeding, Patterson raised more than $12,000 to officially adopt the primate.
She stayed with Patterson for the rest of her life and became renowned as one of the most intellectual apes in history.
Through the years, Koko was visited by numerous celebrities.
She became friends with Leonardo DiCaprio. She taught Mr. Rogers the sign for love and cradled the children’s TV show host in her lap. She once grabbed William Shatner by the testicles after he entered her cage and repeatedly told the animal he loved her. Koko also caused actor and comedian Robin Williams to crack up laughing by raising his shirt and tickling him.