'Neighborhood' Producer Remembers Mr. Rogers' Visit With Koko The Gorilla

Koko, the famous gorilla that knew sign language, passed away Tuesday at 46

Andrew Limberg
June 21, 2018 - 5:40 pm
Fred Rogers

Credit: Jim Judkis / Focus Features

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PITTSBURGH (Newsradio 1020 KDKA) - Koko, the famous gorilla who communicated using sign language died in her sleep Tuesday at her home at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve at in California's Santa Cruz Mountains.

The 46-year-old western lowland gorilla was born on July 4, 1971 and was almost 1 year old when she started learning sign language.

Animal psychologist Dr. Francine “Penny” Patterson taught her over 1,000 signs and understood over 2,000 words. She then became part of a 1974 Stanford University project.

Koko gained national attention after she appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1978 with a photo she took of herself in a mirror.

Koko was also known for her love of cats and was visited by many celebrities over the years but one of her favorite visitors was Fred Rogers.

Fred flew out to California to meet Koko and her “mother” Dr. Patterson and featured it on a 1998 episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” entitled “You and I Together”.

Fred Rogers Productions producer and long-time producer of "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" Margy Whitmer tells KDKA Radio was with Mr. Rogers’ when he visited Koko and was told he’d probably only be with her for 15 minutes.

“I’m sitting up there [in a separate area> and I’m thinking, okay 15 minutes. Well then it was 20 minutes and then it was 30 minutes,” said Whitmer. “I started to get scared. What’s going on in there? Fred’s in there with a gorilla, what happening?”

After about an hour Mr. Rogers’ came out and exclaimed “that was wonderful!”

Whitmer thinks one of the reasons Koko connected with Mr. Rogers’ so deeply was because he was curious, relaxed and was able to make an emotional connection with her.

Whitmer says Rogers’ was nervous like anyone would be at first but “he had this innate trust in beings.”

Whitmer admits she doesn’t remember how the meeting came up but when Mr. Rogers’ found out “Fred was on it, he really thought it was an interesting idea.”

One thing she says she will never forget is the smell when Mr. Rogers’ got in the rental car to leave the preserve.

“It smelled like Gorilla. I said oh my gosh, they’re never going to take this car back. It just stunk!”

Mr. Rogers' is currently featured in the documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

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