Will loggers put Koko out of the mood?

May 30, 1994|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Special to The Sun

SKYLONDA, Calif. -- They met through video dating, when the sight of his muscular build drove her so wild she smacked kisses all over the monitor. Never mind his rowdy past, his other mates, his penchant for projectile vomiting when annoyed. True love forgives.

Now the young couple would like to start a family, part animal urge, part science project. For she is Koko, the world-famous gorilla and two-time National Geographic cover star who wowed the public in the 1970s by learning to communicate with humans using American Sign Language.

The mating of Koko and her intended, Ndume, who alienated visitors to Chicago's Brookfield Zoo with his hostile cage demeanor, carries higher than usual expectations, even for a celebrity tryst. Scientists, eager to understand animal intelligence, are waiting to discover whether Koko will teach her offspring how to use sign language.

But the noise of a logging operation in this woodsy area 30 miles south of San Francisco threatens to disrupt the mating.

Timing is crucial and so is the ambience, and the two amorous apes have a neighbor, Steve Pankowski, who wants to log hundreds of redwoods 400 feet from their love nest. Loud noise has the unalluring effect of giving both gorillas a bad case of upset stomach, as well as the shakes and fits of crying.

"They won't be thinking about sex, they'll be thinking about survival," said Penny Patterson, who has raised Koko from infancy. Like many nannies, Ms. Patterson has fretted for years over her charge's rejected suitors, unrequited love and irregular menstrual periods, only to see jeopardized what she considers a primo opportunity for mating.

Particularly unromantic in the proposed logging plan is two months of piercing blasts from a "tooter" horn used by workers every two to five minutes during the day to alert workers to the operation of logging machinery. Many neighbors in this tiny unincorporated enclave 30 miles south of San Francisco, even those not trying to reproduce, are distraught.

A hearing has been set for June 8.

The logging dispute has galvanized the Skylonda Area Association, the neighborhood group whose president travels to meetings with local and state officials carrying a poster of Koko's earnest face. That group has hooked up with the Gorilla Foundation, the caretakers of Koko and Ndume, to make the same arguments that environmentalists have made for years VTC against timber harvesters: The slash from the trees will pollute the waters, create a fire danger and erode the soil. But Koko is their trump card, particularly a mating Koko, and they know it.

So does Mr. Pankowski, a developer and logger who according to the zoning laws is legally entitled to log the redwoods on his 40-acre property, far larger than the small acreage of most of the homes here. He is not one to criticize Koko.

"I'm very concerned about the gorilla," he said. "I'm all for Koko." As a concession to the group, he agreed to establish a 400-foot buffer zone from Koko's cage to the logging, which he feels should be enough to let Koko and her boyfriend do what they want.

Sharon Duggan, the foundation's lawyer, scoffs. "What I want to know is who's their expert on gorilla sex?" she said.

Mr. Pankowski in fact has hired a gorilla expert, Alexander Harcourt, who was in Europe and unavailable for comment. "It's fair to say he doesn't go along with the hard-line stance the Gorilla Foundation is taking," Mr. Pankowski said.

As for the foundation's claim that Koko deserves protection as a potentially reproductive member of an endangered species, Mr. Pankowski reiterates what he says state officials have told him: that the gorilla is far from being a native resident of Northern California. "The gorilla doesn't live in the trees; it's in a cage," he said.

Mr. Pankowski also has commissioned a noise study and notes that Koko's cage is close to a busy road favored by weekend motorcycle riders who like to rev through the redwoods.

"If that gorilla can live 80 feet from a state highway for the last 10 years, my noise study says my logging operation is going to be less than the existing noise," he said.

The bikers have indeed been a source of stress for Koko, Ms. Patterson said, and the logging could push her toward a nervous breakdown.

"She's very sensitive," she said. Upping the ante, she added, "We fear the stress could even be life-threatening."

Ms. Patterson is not optimistic that gorilla love will prevail. The state Department of Forestry says it approves 99 percent of the timber harvest plans it receives, although many are somewhat modified.

Hoping a swell of public support for Koko is building, Ms. Patterson was shocked when an unknown person in this town of 500 people posted on a bulletin board an anti-gorilla, pro-logging statement that read in part: "We are decreasingly concerned about the sex lives of lowland gorillas."

Mr. Pankowski said he knew nothing about where the statement came from.

Ms. Patterson said she asked Koko about whether trees should be cut down. Koko signed and Ms. Patterson translated: "No good."

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