Koko, the gorilla who learned to converse in sign language, died Thursday at age 46. It was all over the news.
I never actually met her, but Koko helped introduce me to Maui after my family moved here in 1991. I had accepted a job with The Maui News to create and run the Maui Scene, and a short time later to take over the Sunday features section.
The publisher of the paper in those days was Mary Cameron Sanford, known to her friends as Maizie. The descendant of missionaries, Maizie’s slight stature and ever-present smile belied strength, endless stamina and a gigantic heart. Her contributions to the island and the entire state through Hawaii Public Radio were too numerous to count when she died in 2016.
A lifelong animal lover, one of Maizie’s projects when we arrived was supporting the nonprofit Gorilla Foundation’s efforts to create a home for Koko in the West Maui Mountains.
Koko had gained international prominence via a National Geographic cover and numerous TV appearances, working with Stanford animal psychologist Francine “Penny” Patterson to learn 1,000 signs representing more than 2,000 words of English.
With her endlessly expressive face, Koko became a poster child for our tenderest feelings. We’ll never know how “human” her emotions actually were — it felt good to believe they were identical to ours. But for all the love she engendered, she also sparked skepticism, most recently when scientists questioned a viral video the Gorilla Foundation claimed was a “speech” by Koko on global warming and the need for conservation.
The Gorilla Foundation worked during the ’90s to develop the 70-acre Maui Sanctuary for the preservation of great apes, but the plan foundered when no buyer could be found for the land. Koko lived out her life in a Woodside, Calif., preserve near the Stanford campus, before dying in her sleep last week.
It’s probably just as well Koko never moved to Maui. Spending millions of dollars on the preserve at the same time some Hawaiians were living under blue tarps at the beach occasionally sparked the question in my mind, what’s wrong with this picture?
But still, Koko was among my teachers after stepping off the plane to assume my new job, purporting to cover local culture on Maui when, in fact, I didn’t have a clue. Koko’s photo was among the black-and-white, 8-by-10 headshots filling the newsroom’s entertainment filing cabinet.
(Yes, children, once upon a time photos were black-and-white, and made of paper.)
One of my first jobs was sorting the photos, to get my bearings. The names of the entertainers were indecipherable to this newly arrived haole, full of “A’s” and “K’s” and “L’s” and “M’s” by the dozen. The faces all looked the same.
It was the first of countless lessons I was to learn about this duty I had signed on for. And here I had thought covering paradise would be writing reviews of drinks with umbrellas in them.
Learning the story of Koko entailed beginning to learn the plantation history of the island. Learning plantation history entailed learning the difference between Hawaiian culture and the culture of Hawaii. One was an ancient wisdom of the world’s natural order; the other a colorful tapestry of ethnicities from all over the planet coexisting in a unique, mostly harmonious way on this tiny dot in the middle of the sea.
Among many things guiding my tentative footsteps in those early days was the generous spirit of Maizie Sanford. It infused the lives of everyone working for The Maui News then. For Maizie, Maui’s plantation legacy wasn’t a matter of economics, but of creating ‘ohana.
I slowly learned what an honor it was to briefly be part of the family, along with Koko. Her passing is one more reminder of all the things lost en route to the Maui we know today.
Speaking of things to cherish, Maui Film Festival has announced the Audience Award winners of the recently concluded 2018 festival: Narrative Feature: “Puzzle”; Documentary Feature: “Andy Irons: Kissed by God”; World Cinema Narrative Feature: “Find Your Voice”; World Cinema Documentary Feature (tie): “She Is the Ocean” and “Keepers of the Magic”; Comedy Feature: “Ideal Home”; Soul in Cinema: “Stay Human”; Future Focus Feature: “Living in the Future’s Past”; Adventure Feature: “Vague ‘a l’ame”; Earth Shaker Feature: “Dirt Rich”; Family Friendly Feature: “Zoo”; Family Friendly Documentary: “The Serengeti Rules”; Hawaii-Made Film: “I Am Because You Are”; Documentary Short: “The Never-Ending Marathon of Mr. Dharam Singh”; Animated Short: “73 Questions.”
See you next year, same time, same place, for more prizes.
* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, UH-Maui College instructor and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at email@example.com. His column is going on vacation, returning July 17.