Friday, August 12, 2005 Print This | Email This     

Women: Caretaker of famous gorilla pressured us to bare our breasts

By Lisa Sweetingham, Court TV

(Court TV) — Two former caretakers for Koko, the famous gorilla who communicates with humans using sign language, say they were continually pressured to show Koko their breasts or face the consequences.

Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller are suing Koko's primary caretaker, Dr. Francine "Penny" Patterson, because she allegedly asked them to "perform bizarre sexual acts with Koko" — namely, taking off their tops — to bond with the five-foot-tall, 280-pound female gorilla.

"Patterson would interpret certain hand movements made by Koko as a 'demand' to see exposed human nipples," the suit alleges. "[Patterson] made it known to Keller and Alperin that if [they] did not indulge Koko's nipple fetish, their employment with the Gorilla Foundation would suffer."

Claiming severe emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, anger, disappointment and worry, the women filed suit in February, naming the Gorilla Foundation &— the Woodside, Calif., nonprofit charged with Koko's care — and Patterson, its president and research director.

They are seeking more than $1 million in damages for sexual discrimination and wrongful termination, among other claims, and say they were fired after reporting "filthy and dangerous" working conditions to state health officials.

A third woman named in the suit, Sandra Marchese, claims she was misled when Patterson offered her a research associate position, and then made her clean cages and mop floors.

The women were expected to file a second amended complaint this week, emphasizing details of Koko's alleged "nipple fetish" and Patterson's indulgence of the ape's sexually aggressive behavior, when it appeared that Koko's camp agreed to enter into negotiations.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Stephen Sommers, confirmed to that the two sides were in discussions, but did not return calls for comment after those discussions began.

The Gorilla Foundation's legal counsel, Todd Roberts of Ropers, Majeski, Kohn & Bentley, also declined to comment, saying, "Our position has been consistent: We're not going to litigate this in the press. We will litigate it in court."

It's not known how these developments will affect the separate case of former Foundation administrative assistant Iris Rivera, who filed suit a week after Alperin and Keller, claiming she acquiesced to Koko's alleged demands seven or eight times over a two-month period last summer.

According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, when Rivera grudgingly lifted her T-shirt and bra for the ape, Patterson exclaimed, "Oh look, Koko, she has big nipples." Rivera quit her job in January.

Her attorney did not return calls for comment.

The Gorilla Foundation is not talking about the case, but issued a statement through its Web site saying the suits are meritless.

"To be clear, we unequivocally deny the hurtful allegations of the suits and intend to vigorously defend the cases through trial, if necessary, in the San Mateo County Superior Court," the statement says. "We will not be deterred from our ultimate mission."

Girl meets gorilla

Grad student Penny Patterson, was studying developmental psychology in 1972 at Stanford University, when she met a one-year-old baby gorilla named Hanabi-Ko at the San Francisco Zoo.

Patterson began to teach Koko sign language as part of her master's thesis on the potential for "interspecies communication." The experience developed into a lifelong bond with Koko, whom she hand-raised.

Koko's first words, "eat" "drink" and "more," evolved into a "talking" vocabulary of some 1,000 signs, including such abstract concepts as "love," "jealous," and "shame."

According to her Web site, she has an IQ of between 70 and 95; she can understand and respond to about 2,000 words of spoken English; her favorite book is "The Three Little Kittens," and her favorite movie is "Free Willy."

In 1976, Patterson teamed with Dr. Ronald Cohn to establish the Gorilla Foundation, which holds trust over Koko and works toward gorilla preservation efforts worldwide.

Koko, according to Patterson, has expressed a desire to have a baby of her own, and the Foundation is working to build a gorilla preserve in Maui, Hawaii, where Koko, her mate Ndume, and other apes may one day live, and interspecies communication can be studied.

Honorary co-chairs and supporters of the Maui Preserve include comedian Robin Williams, musician Sting, and their wives.

But Alperin and Keller say Koko's celebrity status doesn't give her a pass for inappropriate behavior.

Alperin was hired in April 2004 to be a research assistant and gorilla caregiver at the Foundation. On at least three occasions, she claims, Patterson pressured her to show Koko her nipples as a way to bond with the gorilla.

According to the complaint, Patterson would communicate to Koko, saying, "Oh yes, Koko, Nancy has nipples. Nancy can show you her nipples," or, "Oh Koko, why don't you and Nancy have a visit? I will go and do some other things. I wouldn't want anything to impede the relationship between you two."

Keller, who was hired as a research associate and gorilla caregiver in March 2004, claims she was twice asked to show Koko her breasts, alleging that Patterson once told the gorilla, "Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples. I will turn my back so Kendra can show you her nipples."

Both women say they refused to show Koko their nipples.

The women also allege that they were so alarmed by the "filthy and dangerous conditions" — including rats in the food prep area and gorilla urine stored in the refrigerator next to employees' food — that Alperin notified California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health on July 16, 2004.

Cal/OSHA fined the Foundation $300 for violations after making an Aug. 5 inspection.

The women claim they received letters from Patterson the day after the inspection, confirming their termination.

But the Gorilla Foundation noted in its response to the complaint that Keller and Alperin admit they were originally fired on or about July 18 and July 21, respectively.

Because the inspections did not occur until Aug. 5, the response says, "It is impossible ... to prove any nexus between Alperin's complaint and the termination of their employment."

Dirty work?

Former research associate Sandra Marchese, who was hired in July 2003, says she found the working conditions at the Foundation "unbearable" and is suing along with Keller and Alperin for emotional distress.

Marchese, who has sign language skills and degrees in anthropology, says she took a leave of absence from her job as a public school teacher in Washington and traveled to California to work for the Gorilla Foundation.

She says she had little time for research, because she was saddled with "a broad range of menial tasks."

Those tasks included cleaning the gorilla cages and trailers, sorting through produce and tidying up the home of Foundation co-founder RonCohn.

"Cleaning the trailers included removing feces and urine-soaked blankets and toys, washing the blankets and toys (sometimes by hand), sweeping, mopping and replenishing the blankets and toys," according to the suit. She says she was not given the proper tools to pick up gorilla feces.

"Marchese requested protective clothing or a 'pooper scooper,' to which Mr. Cohn suggested Marchese cut a paper plate in half and use that to accomplish the task," the suit alleges.

When Cohn's chained pit bull "Max" bit her arm, leaving a scrape, Marchese claims that Cohn suggested she take the dog for regular walks so that Max and Marchese could "get to know each other."

Marchese gave two weeks' notice and left in April 2004. She is asking for $300,000 in damages.

According to Sommers, Alperin has returned to social work and Keller has gone back to being a sign language interpreter for the deaf. Alperin is asking for more than $700,000 in damages. Keller wants more than $360,000.

The women also claim they were not paid overtime, or given rest periods.

In its response to the complaint, the Gorilla Foundation denied allegations of untoward monkey business on Patterson's behalf.

"There are no allegations that Dr. Patterson's translations were sexual advances of any type, that the statements involved 'sex,' or that they resulted in any adverse consequences to Keller or Alperin," the response notes. "There are no facts suggesting any discrimination based on conduct of a sexual nature."

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