Koko The Gorilla’s Nipple Fetish

Famous for knowing American Sign Language and understanding English, the legendary gorilla was also pretty obsessed with areolas.

By Jessie Schiewe


“Hurry give me mouth nipple.”

That’s one of the last things Koko the gorilla said during an interview with AOL in 1998. Even though she could communicate around 1,000 words in American Sign Language and reportedly understood around 2,000 English terms,“nipple” was a word the celebrity ape loved and used often. In that brief interview with AOL, she signed it nine times.

Koko the gorilla gained fame in the late 1970s when her handler, Francine “Penny” Patterson, taught her ASL beginning at the age of 1 in a bid to prove and further research on interspecies communication. Because of her unique abilities, Koko — who passed away in her sleep at the age of 46 on June 19, 2018 — became one of the most famous living gorillas, changing the way science perceives communication and emotion in great apes.

She appeared on the cover of National Geographic a few times, starting in 1978 when Patterson handed her a camera and instructed her to snap a photo of herself in a mirror, essentially taking a “selfie.” PBS, BBC, and indie filmmakers made documentaries about her and tabloid magazines regularly included photos of the popular primate within their pages. A multitude of children’s books and stuffed animals were inspired by Koko, as well as the Michael Crichton novel, and subsequent movie, Congo — about a female gorilla fluent in sign language who helps explorers locate a tribe of monkey-human hybrids in the African rainforest.

Koko met and befriended a number of celebrities over the years, too, including Barry White, William Shatner, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Robin Williams tickled her in 2001. Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers tried to teach her to play the bass. When she appeared in an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, one of her favorite shows, she signed to Fred Rogers that she liked his cufflinks.

But there was another side to Koko many people weren’t aware of that first came to light in 2005 when the gorilla was 34 years old. Koko had an obsession with nipples. Patterson has claimed it was a non-sexual interest that helped the gorilla bond better with humans. Koko herself didn’t seem to care whether she was gazing at a male’s or female’s chest. She saw Patterson’s nipples, her handler’s nipples, and even Robin Williams’ nipples. When he came to the Gorilla Foundation in California’s Santa Cruz mountains to spend an afternoon with her in 2001, she reportedly lifted up his shirt and placed her hands on his bare chest.

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Word of Koko the gorilla’s nipple obsession came out in 2005 when two former workers filed a lawsuit against the Gorilla Foundation. Kendra Keller and Nancy Alperin said they were “pressured” by Patterson to “engage in the sexual act of removing their clothing to expose their breasts” to Koko. The requests to flash the ape always came from Patterson who interpreted Koko’s signed conversations.

“Oh yes, Koko. Nancy has nipples. Nancy can show her nipples,” the lawsuit claims the trainer said on one occasion, Daily Mail reports.

Patterson had no issues entertaining the gorilla’s fetish and would encourage others to show her their nipples claiming Koko had grown too familiar with her own. She reportedly said: “Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You're probably bored with them. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you hers.”

Kinky though it seemed, Patterson has remained adamant that it was just a way to grow close to Koko, calling it a “normal component to developing a personal bond with the gorilla.”

Koko was a Western Lowland Gorilla who was born at the San Francisco Zoo on July 4, 1971, earning her the name Hanabi-Ko — Japanese for “fireworks child.” It was quickly shortened to the more catchy, Koko. Patterson was a 25-year-old psychology PhD student at Stanford University who began working with the gorilla at the age of 1 for her doctorate. She was trying to prove that gorillas could learn to communicate through sign language, and she achieved her goal within two weeks, teaching Koko how to sign the word “drink.”

Often seen around the San Francisco Bay Area driving to the supermarket with Koko in the passenger seat of her Datsun, Patterson raised $12,500 in 1976 to purchase the gorilla from the zoo. The pair later relocated to a hidden location in the Santa Cruz mountains near Woodside, California, where Patterson established the Gorilla Foundation that would be Koko’s home for the remainder of her life.

Though Koko had a broad vocabulary, she didn’t use syntax or grammar. There were also many words that she didn’t know. Still, she found creative ways to describe them, combining words she was familiar with to make new ones. For instance, a hair brush was a “scratch comb,” ice cream was “my cold cup,” and a ring was a “finger bracelet.” She even made up a word for her favorite food — nectarine yogurt — calling it “orange flower sauce.”

Though Koko fully understood what a “nipple” was, it was also a word that she used as a stand-in for others that she didn’t know. In the AOL interview, Patterson explained that “Koko sometimes uses ‘nipple' as a 'sounds like' for 'people.' ”

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Koko the Gorilla’s nipples obsession might also have had to do with her lifelong desire to have a baby, since both humans and apes breastfeed. From an early age, the gorilla hinted that she wanted to be a mother, holding her elbows in her hands and rocking her arms from side to side as if cradling an infant. She played with dolls, pretending to nurse them or scold them, and raised and befriended a number of cats throughout her lifetime. If visitors showed her photographs of their kids, she’d reportedly take the pictures and coo over the children, kissing their faces. She’d even make flower wreaths for her head, which her human owners interpreted as a sign that she wanted to find a spouse, get married, and have babies.


Unfortunately, even though two different male gorillas were introduced to her during her lifetime, she never mated with either of them, treating one as a brother and developing a strong dislike for the other.

Koko the gorilla’s nipples lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, and Keller and Alperin — who claim they never actually flashed the ape despite her requests — dropped the case.

But others who worked at the Gorilla Foundation did follow Koko’s repeated pleas to show their nipples. John Safkow, an employee who worked there between 2009 and 2012, told the Cincinnati Enquirer that while no one was ever pressured or instructed to show their nipples to the ape, many people still did it — including himself.

“The nipple thing,” he said, “was real.”