It’s so great to have your friends close when you celebrate special events in your life. Koko the gorilla turned 44 years old on July 4, and she received the most wonderful gift. She opens the box and to everyone’s surprise, the old gorilla is overwhelmed with happiness. How can we tell? Well, this particular gorilla can talk in sign language.

Let’s check out Koko’s story, which began in 1971… It’s a heartbreaking story, but it also has happy moments.

20. Koko Loves Babies

The gorilla didn’t have any babies, but her trainer decided to surprise Koko on her birthday. Not only did she get a birthday cake, but she received a box. Her face will immediately change once she looks into the box. It was the dream gift!

19. The Beginning

Before we see Koko’s reaction, let’s go back to the day the gorilla was born. She was at the San Francisco Zoo, and her full name, Hanabiko, means ‘fireworks child’. She was nicknamed Koko and she had to leave her mother…

18. A Terrible Disease

When Koko turned six months, she got a disease that threatened her life. She could only be saved, but she had to be separated from her mother. Fortunately, Koko recovered and met a friend that would shape her whole life: Francine “Penny” Patterson, a psychology Ph.D. student.

17. It Would Last 4 Years

The zoo agreed to the project, only if the student would spend the years with Koko. So, Koko got a new home at the Stanford University, where she also met zoologist Dr. Ronald Cohn. You won’t believe what they taught Koko…

16. Project Koko

The project was to see if apes were able to learn sign language. Koko also met Ndume and Michael, two gorillas that were part of the project. All that time spent together have made Patterson and Koko inseparable friends. And Koko learned how to talk!

15. That’s a Smart Ape!

Koko knows over 1,000 signs and understands more than 2,000 English words. Her friend Michael passed away in 2000, but also knew as much as Koko. Ndume picked up signs from both Koko and the humans…

14. Years Passed

In 2015, Patterson said that Koko has spent so much time around language sign that she even ‘understood some English from the very beginning’. You won’t believe what Koko did in an interview!

13. This is Just Amazing!

‘She also had some signs when I arrived that she used without anybody prompting her. So, I created new signs and asked questions,’ said Patterson. Even though her language is similar to a child’s, Koko gets deeper concepts…

12. Birthday Cards

For example, Koko knew her birthday was getting close, said Patterson: ‘Even a month before her birthday, she starts putting out some of these cards with birthday designs on them’. And the highly intelligent ape was visited by famous people!

11. Famous Visits

Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Sting and Robin Williams went to visit Koko and talk to her. And it looks like Koko understood how famous she was, because when she described herself, she used the sign for ‘queen’, surprising Patterson.

10. She’s Special

‘It was a sign we almost never used’, said Patterson. ‘Koko understands that she’s special because of all the attention she’s had from professors, and caregivers, and the media,’ she added. But Koko was missing something…

9. What Do You Want For a Birthday?

Whenever Patterson asked Koko what she wanted for her birthday, she would reply with a sign associated with the word ‘baby’. When Koko was a young ape, she received toys and dolls to play with. When she turned 12, she received a real kitten called All Ball.

8. A Tragic Event

Unfortunately, Koko lost her kitten six months later, when it was run over. Her pet died and Koko used the signs for ‘sad’, ‘cry’, ‘trouble’, and ‘frown’ to tell her caretaker how she felt. After that, Koko had a red tabby and a gray kitty that lived almost 20 years! And then…

7. It’s Been 44 Years…

The 4-year project turned into a 44-year-old relationship – and still counting. But on July 4, 2015, Koko would have the best surprise of them all. Her best friend and mother, Patterson, gave Koko a box with a special gift…

6. A Litter of Kittens!

Koko discovered a litter of kittens in her box. She first let them smell her and get accustomed to the scent. Then she tickled the kittens’ bellies with a finger. Just wait to see how gently she touches them!

5. ‘Cat’ and ‘Baby’

The giant ape was eager to pick up her babies, but she was patient and let them come close on their own. Koko was in love with the kittens! She used the signs ‘cat’ and ‘baby’ to show Patterson that she was happy to adopt them all.

4. Ms. Gray and Ms. Black

She even chose a favorite, Ms. Gray and asked for it to be put on her head! The black kitten climbed on her mommy and Koko was in heaven! This would be the beginning of a happy furry family.

3. Seven Months Later…

In 2016, on Koko’s website, the kittens appeared in a video. With Koko by their side, every day was playtime. Patterson was also in awe of them, knowing she has done a good job so far.

2. Ape Welfare

Patterson’s main goal was successful: Koko and the other two apes have learned to use sign language and communicate with humans. Now, the caretaker is focused on the ape welfare. And Koko is focused on her kitties.

1. The Gorilla Mom

The kittens have grown into beautiful cats, thanks to their mommy Koko. If you’re asking us who’s the cutest of them all, we’d have a difficult time choosing between mom Koko and her kitties!