New Year celebrations include remembering friends and pets long passed. LUYE recently donated a copy of “Koko’s Kitten” to the Haywood County library as a resource to help children deal with grief associated with the death of a pet.

Koko was the famous female lowland gorilla who used American Sign Language to say that she wanted a cat by pulling two fingers across her cheeks to imitate whiskers. When given a toy cat in response, she pouted.

Koko’s desire for a cat didn’t surprise her caretaker, American animal psychologist Francine ‘Penny’ Patterson, who taught Koko to sign. Koko’s favorite stories included “The Three Little Kittens” and “Puss in Boots.”

It was many months after the rejected toy that Koko finally got her wish:  she was presented with an unusual litter of three abandoned kittens that had been wet-nursed for a month by a Cairn Terrier. “Love that” she signed and chose the tailless gray male, poetically naming him All Ball.

Sensational photos in the January 1985 National Geographic show Koko sniffing the kitten and treating him like a baby gorilla. She dressed Ball in linen napkins and hats. She signed to Ball that they should tickle each other – one of Koko’s favorite games along with toy alligator chases. Koko was gentle and would laugh or sign “obnoxious” when Ball would bite.

When Ball was hit and killed by a car that same year, Koko grieved for months and once signed “sad bad trouble” when asked about him. Koko helped Patterson create a children’s book about grief and death. Koko never had her own gorilla babies but adopted additional tailless or Manx kittens in the years that followed.

Born in 1971 at the San Francisco Zoo, Koko was loaned to Patterson for a Stanford University research project on interspecies communications. Koko eventually moved to The Gorilla Foundation in California and died in her sleep in 2018 at age 46, the average lifespan for her species.

All Ball was almost a year old when killed on the road. The average lifespan of outdoor cats is less than the 15 years of indoor cats given the higher daily risks they face. Community cats live for 7 years on average. Spay/neuter and proper parasite control add years of life for those avoiding cars, toxins, and eluding predators like dogs, foxes, owls and coyotes.

Make 2022 one of your best years yet by including the joy of cats in your life. It will make you purr and keep rodents from invading your home. MEOW!


This article by Head Cat Susan Kumpf appeared in the January 2022 issue of Positively Haywood by Vicinitus.