February 19, 2019
By Libby Smidl, sanctuary supervisor
“Chimpanzee. 3.5 year male. Tame. Entertainment income potential. $15,000 negotiable. Will trade for classic car.” In 1985, this was how Koko was described. Koko was negotiable, objectified, and also known as the “Pittsburgh-Rent-A-Chimp”. Today, Koko is described as “intelligent, goofy, and mindful”. To us, Koko is irreplaceable, an individual and a member of the Primarily Primates family.
Koko suffered as a defenseless victim of the cruel primate pet trade. Koko’s upbringing was heartbreaking and unstable. His story is pieced together through name changes and “missing documents” in order to hide the true horrors of his past. Koko was first purchased, under lost documentation from a Puerto Rican Zoo, by an ill-advised couple determined to domesticate him. They named him “Sam.” When the infant chimpanzee misbehaved, they would lock him in a dark closet, leaving him alone until they felt “he learned his lesson.” As “Sam” began to grow and mature into a juvenile chimpanzee, he became uncontrollable for the couple and they decided to sell him.
He was purchased by a wealthy couple that renamed him, “Koko.” They believed “Koko” was a more exotic name that would fit their brand. They created the “Pittsburgh-Rent-A-Chimp” program, where Koko was rented out to attend any type of party, ranging from birthday to bachelor parties. When he wasn’t being exploited and abused at the parties, Koko was kept shackled in an unfinished, concrete basement in the couple’s house. He sat, with a chain padlocked to his neck, tethered to a chain that was bolted to the floor and given a five-foot radius. He was locked in a cold, dark basement with no windows. The only light came from the box television when they allowed him to watch weekend football or from the light from the upstairs door when food was tossed down to him. He ate whatever food rolled into his five-foot radius.
As Koko continued to grow, the couple could no longer house him. On top of maturing into his strength as a juvenile chimp, Koko was affected by the severe psychological trauma caused by his isolation and mistreatment. The couple placed an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, which caught the attention of an animal activist who was fearful Koko would be rehomed to another pet home, a circus or a laboratory. This animal activist fought for Koko’s freedom and helped him arrive at Primarily Primates.
Koko, now 37 years old, is thriving at Primarily Primates. He lives in a spacious habitat overlooking a large pond. He plays chase on the green grass with his troop mates Chobe and Willie. Koko loves building nests out of any material he can find—fresh blankets provided daily, newspaper, hay, or any enrichment toys. When the weather is warm he prefers sleeping outside underneath the stars. Koko is silly and loves to wear hats and sunglasses. He is given a new sticker book every day and loves to “decorate” his habitat with stickers. He is famous for his “Koko kissy face”, always greeting caregivers with a big kiss! He loves to groom both his troop mates and caregivers. Koko is a fan of all foods—he has never encountered a food he doesn’t enjoy, although his favorites are grapes and sweet potatoes. He is helpful and is always first to trade used blankets in the morning for fresh blankets.
Koko was given another chance at the life he always deserved and is fulfilling every minute of it. To learn more about Koko, his troop mates Chobe and Willie, or any of the other 35 chimpanzees who call Primarily Primates home, visit our website for more information.