Here’s the thing…
It’s extremely, highly doubtful that the apes we teach sign language actually understand language. The vast majority of the time, they’re reading our emotions and responding with what they think will reward them – the smart horse effect. It’s why they don’t ask questions and only answer basic ones. They just don’t understand language in the same way we do.
The Gorilla Foundation itself actually has extremely sketchy practices and has been known to twist Koko’s actions into more than they really are. She’s also extremely unhealthy, with her days consisting of watching TV and eating junk food, alone. The whole thing about Robin Williams was vastly overblown – gorilla’s lips don’t quiver when they are sad. She was mimicking and reading the emotions of the people around her. A lot of her “actions” are blatant anthropomorphism, and what’s worse, her living conditions are downright unacceptable.
Now don’t get me wrong, I believe animals are much more intelligent than we think. I believe every living being is sentient. But they just aren’t designed for language – which is why we need to stop judging an animal’s worth by their ability to learn it. We need to start communicating with them the way they do, and not force them to be like us.
Koko the gorilla passed away today, so I think it’s important to read this again.