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March 02, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Reporter's Notebook: Gorillas gone wild Reporter's Notebook: Gorillas gone wild (March 02, 2005)

By Andrea Gemmet

Can a gorilla have a nipple fetish? Does Koko get her kicks from seeing women's ... well, you get the idea.

It's a question most people never expected to be pondering, but the recent lawsuits against the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside by three former employees who said they were pressured to show their breasts to Koko have raised all sorts of mind-boggling issues.

Last week, former Gorilla Foundation administrative assistant Iris Rivera filed a lawsuit against the foundation with allegations similar to the ones made by two other former employees, Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller.

The women say that Gorilla Foundation founder Francine "Penny" Patterson interpreted hand gestures by famed ape Koko as a demand to see their nipples, a demand she allegedly asked them to comply with.

Setting aside the sexual harassment issue for a moment, one has to wonder why a gorilla would be interested in human nudity. Thanks to my young daughter, I watch plenty of wildlife documentaries, and the one thing that all God's creatures seem to have in common is a distinct lack of clothing. Sure, from a well-socialized human's perspective, some of them, like baboons, could really do with a pair of shorts. From a gorilla's perspective, nakedness is hardly an exotic concept.

Of course, Koko, who is said to use more than 1,000 words in American Sign Language and to understand even more words in spoken English, has been subjected to more of the blessings of civilization than most gorillas. Perhaps the media attention, celebrity visits and live online chats have taken their toll. As Ms. Patterson said of Koko on her Web site, "She's just as much a person as we are."

Maybe the wild gorillas that Dian Fossey hung out with in Africa wouldn't have raised a hairy brow at Janet Jackson's "wardrobe failure" during the Super Bowl, but Koko would have been back online complaining to the FCC within minutes. (Unless she was repeatedly hitting the rewind on her TiVo.)

I don't want to diminish the claims made by the Gorilla Foundation employees -- claims the foundation's attorney bluntly denies -- because unless you're working as a stripper, no boss has the right to tell you to pull up your top. But it seems the Koko scandal says more about humanity's tendency to fetishize the female torso than it does about the gorilla.

It's not too hard to determine which primate has the weird fixation. After all, it's people -- and by people, I mean heterosexual males between the ages of 18-24 -- who have bought most of the millions of copies sold of the Girls Gone Wild tapes.

If society had a healthy relationship with mammary glands, would there be such a huge market for videos showing an endless parade of drunk young women with daddy issues flashing the camera? If Koko handed out Mardi Gras beads and mixed drinks to her flashers, would her alleged requests suddenly become socially acceptable?

And as for the scandal that followed the televised view of Janet Jackson's nipple, was that really the sleaziest aspect of her Super Bowl performance? I haven't watched a halftime show since Diana Ross's helicopter stunt in 1996, so I normally leave the halftime extravaganza-bashing to the professionals, but I fail to see how the addition of a well-adhered pasty would have made the sight of one pop star ripping open the shirt of another pop star in dominatrix gear any less sexually charged.

Any woman who's had to breastfeed a baby in public, especially here in the United States, has come upon this strange mental disconnect. How can the wholesome, natural act of feeding a hungry infant be offensive or titillating? And yet, breast-feeding advocates are constantly hearing from nursing mothers who have been chastised, upbraided or otherwise stigmatized by self-righteous people with prurient minds who think that breasts and babes in any form belong behind closed doors.

I don't think there are too many people out there with expertise on the subject of interspecies bonding via bare breasts, but it doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure out that the biggest losers in the Gorilla Foundation uproar are the gorillas themselves.

Whether you think Koko is a wonderful ambassador for her wild kin or an elaborate hoax, gorillas are an endangered species losing numbers to poachers and steadily disappearing habitat. Gorilla Foundation supporters are worried that the future of the Maui Ape Preserve and other Africa-based conservation projects are going to suffer.

It's up to the courts to decide if the people in charge of Koko acted illegally. As for Koko herself, if she does indeed possess a few quirks, well, who are we to judge?

Andrea Gemmet is an Almanac staff writer.

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