The Moral Purpose of Telling Koko the Gorilla How Robin Williams Died

Take a minute to think about all the ethical dilemmas you face on a daily basis. Should I tell Nordstrom that they sent me the wrong and much more expensive item or just return it for cash? Is it ethical to request that the dollar I put in the tip jar not go to a certain rude barista? What is never high on my list of ethical dilemmas, however, is how to delicately handle the emotions of a gorilla.

A reader-submitted question for the most recent Ethicist column in the New York Times concerns whether or not it is ethical to inform Koko, a gorilla, about Robin William’s suicide.

According to press reports, Koko, the gorilla adept at sign language, seemed saddened to hear the news of the death of Robin Williams, whom the gorilla met once in 2001 (and bonded with immediately). I cannot fathom the ethical reasoning behind telling Koko about Williams’s death. What is the point of telling her about the death of someone she met once, 13 years ago? The press reports dwelt on the fact that she appeared sad. I don’t think any of us can know if she was sad or not — but even if this news opens the possibility of making her unhappy, it seems cruel to bring this into her life. What moral purpose does it serve? RITA LONG, OAKLAND, CALIF.

Rita Long: Keeping us focused on the truly important ethical dilemmas of our time,

Now, are gorillas incredibly intelligent, conscious animals? Yes. Are they one of the closest relatives to human beings? Yes. However, gorillas are not people, so centering a discussion around the emotional distress of a gorilla—one that requires more than a few qualifiers to be true—is odd, to say the least.

That’s not to say that animals don’t experience emotions similar to those of humans, but would this much ink be given to whether or not it is ethical to inform any causal fan of Robin Williams of his death?

This, by the way, is a picture of Koko “responding” to the news.

The Ethicist, one Chuck Klosterman, rather brilliantly entertains this question about a gorilla’s feelings on suicide. He first ponders if apes can even comprehend what we know as “celebrity,” and therefore, if Koko is able to understand that Robin Williams’ death is somehow special.

So if Koko was still impacted by that 2001 meeting in the year 2014, it would suggest something pretty profound about ape consciousness. I mean, can gorillas vividly recall and contextualize every interaction they experience? Do gorillas feel empathy for all mammals equally?

I would also like to point out that if Koko does, in fact, possess this level of consciousness, why are we more obligated to protect her feelings than those of all of humans? It’s not like the rest of us were shielded from the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. His family members knew. His close friends knew. His coworkers knew. Why in high holy hell would a gorilla he met once be excluded from the news?

You really do have to admire the thoughtfulness that Klosterman put into this response because my response would have involved a gif from a Bravo television show.

Do gorillas simply want to please their human masters and reflexively display whatever emotion they assume is expected? Can gorillas comprehend what death is? Do they understand that they, too, will die (and that death, though natural, justifies sadness)? If any of these questions could be irrefutably affirmed, everything we think about gorillas would need to be re-examined, along with our entire relationship with all nonhuman mammals.

Klosterman then taps into the knowledge of a a noted veterinarian and author, Vint Virga, for more in-depth analysis because why not? We’re already here.

“I would set aside the issue of the animal’s cognitive intelligence and focus on the concept of an animal’s emotional intelligence, which studies continue to show is much greater than we previously imagined. Animals and humans both experience joy and sadness throughout their life. Why would you want to shelter a gorilla from that experience? I believe a gorilla absolutely has the ability to understand the loss of someone who was important to her, and animals are often able to deal with grieving and loss more effectively than humans.”

I feel like Koko is definitely sitting around, noshing on a nice bundle of bamboo shoots and not thinking about any of this while we all exert our human brainpower wondering about her feelings. She is Tom Sawyer and we are all her foolish friends needlessly whitewashing the fence. Point: Koko.

Images via The Gorilla Foundation.

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