Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by jackson. jackson Wonders, “How do dogs understand human commands?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, jackson!

Have you ever had a chat with an animal? Many pet owners talk to their animals. How much do the pets really understand? There’s not much evidence that our fish or lizard pets understand us. However, dogs respond when we say, “Sit,” or “Stay.” A 2016 study showed that dogs really do understand human speech. This isn’t unique to our canine friends! Potbelly pigs, chimpanzees, and elephants all understand some human language. Scientists believe we may even be able to talk to dolphins one day!

Some animals are very good at communication. They understand humans better than other animals do. A grey parrot named Alex knew 150 words and spoke in full sentences. Chaser, a border collie in South Carolina, knows all the names of her 1,022 toys. She’ll fetch whichever one you ask her to! The most famous example is Koko, a western lowland gorilla who knew sign language.

Koko was born at the San Francisco Zoo on the 4th of July in 1971. The zoo named her Hanabiko, which is Japanese for “fireworks child.” Her caretakers called her “Koko” for short. Koko began learning American Sign Language after her first birthday from a psychologist named Francine “Penny” Patterson. With Patterson’s help, Koko learned 2,000 words!

Koko was very friendly. She enjoyed talking with most humans. Everyone who met her could tell she was smart. What really set Koko apart, though, was her personality. Koko didn’t just communicate her needs — she also told jokes and played tricks on her trainers. Koko even insulted people she didn’t like by calling them words like “devil” and “dirty toilet.” That wasn‘t very nice! Luckily, Koko liked most of the people she met.

It didn’t take long for Koko to gain global fame. She even became friends with several celebrities. She met Mr. Rogers in 1998 after watching his TV show for years. Koko and Mr. Rogers got along well. She even signed “Koko-love” to him. Later, she met Robin Williams in 2001. On camera, Koko started a tickle fight with Williams as her trainers laughed. Williams and Koko became good friends.

Koko could even use a camera. She loved to take selfies! National Geographic made one of Koko’s selfies its cover photo in 1978. The picture was one she took of herself in the mirror. Koko was on the cover of National Geographic again in 1985. In that picture, she held her kitten, whom she named “All Ball.”  Koko’s love for All Ball touched global audiences. She became known as a cat lover. Koko raised three kittens during her life.

Koko spent most of her life around humans. Still, she had many animal friends. In addition to her cats, she had a gorilla friend named Michael. Michael learned sign language from Koko and Dr. Patterson. The two gorillas lived together and were best friends. Koko also became friends with gorillas Ndume and Snowflake. Koko was proud to be a gorilla. When asked to describe herself, she said she was a “fine animal gorilla.”  

Koko taught us a lot about animals’ brains. Because of her, zoologists now think other animals might be able to understand us. What animal would you most like to talk to? Could your pets learn sign language like Koko? Maybe there’s another way they could communicate.

Standards: ELA.RH.6-8.2, ELA.RH.6-8.10, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.3, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.3, CCRA.W.7, CCRA.SL.2

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