Do gorillas understand what happened on 9/11?

I know it sounds like an odd question, but a wall posting by on Facebook made me think about animals and their capacity for empathy. For those of you who don’t know, Koko is a western lowland gorilla that has been taught to speak using American Sign Language by Dr. Penny Patterson. Koko has a vocabulary of over 1000 words. For Oz Chronicles fans, Koko’s late companion, Michael is the inspiration for Ajax.

In November 2001, Dr. Patterson posted this on Koko’s blog:

While many people know that Koko is fluent in sign language, most aren’t aware that she also understands a great deal of spoken English. So, when she overheard staff discussing the 9-11 tragedy, then later caught a minute of a Charlie Rose TV segment describing the incident, Koko became quite anxious. Here’s an excerpt of our dialogue:

Penny: Why are you upset?
Koko Feel very sorry (then a big audible sigh).
Penny: Talk about the trouble?
Koko: Man cut-neck, know takeoff.

Koko’s sign “cut-neck” was exactly the same as gorilla Michael’s sign, when we asked him to describe what happened to his mother, who was poached when he was a baby in Africa. (You can see Michael signing this on video in the recent NATURE documentary “A Conversation with Koko.”)

Later, Koko signed “trouble” when she heard a low-flying plane overhead (we also have this on video).

This isn’t the only example of animals showing empathy towards humans. I watched a Nova special called Decoding Dogs that explored the relationship between man and dogs. Recent DNA studies have revealed that the domestication of dogs may go back much farther than first thought, by as many as 87,000 years. Because of that long relationship with humans, dogs have become attuned to our emotions. In fact, 100,000 years ago that empathy may have assured their survival and in turn, assured the trait was passed on to their offspring and the generations to follow. Dogs are the only animal to actually read the right side of a person’s face. Even wolves, the domesticated dogs’ wild ancestor, don’t show this trait. Incidentally, the right side of the face is where human’s reveal (however subtle) their current emotional state.

In Koko’s case, she didn’t read her human companions’ emotional state. She actually processed the information through language, which I find even more incredible. By listening to the conversations around her, and perhaps recognizing sadness in their tone, she was able to understand that something bad happened. Beyond that, she was able to grasp some of the details of what happened. For instance, she knew it involved a plane and death.
The evolution of technology and understanding suggests that there will be a day that we bridge the communication gap between humans and animals. That day will be both exciting and terrifying. They may even have a few questions for us that will be tough to answer, like “Dude, why did you put a strip mall where that forest used to be?”

Here’s a video demonstrating Koko’s empathetic nature.