New audio series about famous gorilla studies shows unusual sides to the history of animal science
By Jonathan Pabico, Senior Columnist
The series skillfully balances the heartwarming bond between Penny Patterson and Koko with the weird happenings and controversies of this study.
If animals are your passion, then consider listening to the new podcast series A Show About Animals. The show is headed by Arielle Duhaime-Ross, an experienced podcast host who covered topics from climate change to science for VICE News and other media platforms. Their podcast is an engaging program that enjoyably educates listeners about the weird side of wildlife studies.
Duhaime-Ross primarily explores the iconic study about Koko the gorilla from the 1970s and how the ape’s ability to learn sign language raised questions about whether language is what truly separates humans from animals. The study was started by Stanford University student Penny Patterson who taught sign language to Koko while observing her growth with communication. However, the study ignited debates and controversies that still affect animal research in the scientific community today.
The podcast weaves through documentary clips, old audio recordings, as well as old and current interviews to produce a well-edited story about Koko. Duhaime-Ross is a caring and informative narrator with an open-mindedness to learn as they unpack every curious detail of their research. Their narrations are backed by a dreamy soundtrack brilliantly evoking how backwards and surreal science was in the 1970s while reflecting the trendy culture of the era.
The series skillfully balances the heartwarming bond between Patterson and Koko with the weird happenings and controversies of this study. The podcast provides a delightful tone to its story as it dives into Patterson’s parental role in the gorilla’s life. At the same time, Duhaime-Ross doesn’t shy away from discussing Koko’s odd quirks like being able to lie.
The show also addresses several issues that threatened Koko’s place in animal science. From the study’s arbitrary criteria to Patterson fighting for the gorilla’s ownership, Duhaime-Ross depicts the harsh realities of what it means to practice science in a turbulent world. The podcast is unapologetic in immersing you in the ripple effects that came with this study.
Take note that Duhaime-Ross’s podcast has only four episodes so far. While the first two episodes deal with the Koko study, the next two focus on the absurdly bizarre Nim Chimpsky study. The Chimpsky episodes add some world-building and historical context for the decade since this study competed with the Koko study at the time. However, there are not many connections made between the studies, so the podcast so far does feel abrupt in shifting the story lens from Koko to Nim. Though, I happily recommend you focus on the Koko episodes as they help you get invested in the podcast before new entries are added. The Koko episodes have more fun and riveting findings about animal language worth tuning into.
Overall, Arielle Duhaime-Ross’s newest podcast A Show About Animals provides plenty of surprising insight into famous ape studies. Duhaime-Ross presents a captivating picture of what it was like for scientists to explore language as the benchmark for humans and apes. If you’re into the strange history of animal science, then this podcast is worth your time.