Monday, November 28, 2005 Print This | Email This     

Women drop sexual harassment suit against Koko the gorilla's caretaker

By Lisa Sweetingham, Court TV

(Court TV) — Two women who claimed they were pressured to show their breasts to Koko, the famous gorilla who communicates with humans through sign language, have dropped their sexual harassment lawsuit after reaching a settlement agreement earlier this week.

Former gorilla caretakers Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller asked for more than $1 million in damages in their sexual discrimination and wrongful termination suit filed in February against the Gorilla Foundation — the Woodside, Calif. nonprofit charged with Koko's care — and Dr. Francine Patterson, the foundation's president and Koko's primary caretaker.

Attorneys on both sides declined to comment on the terms of the settlement agreement.

"It remains the position of The Gorilla Foundation that the termination of Ms. Keller's and Ms. Alperin's employment with The Gorilla Foundation was entirely lawful and unrelated to any of the matters raised in their lawsuit," read an official statement posted Wednesday on the Gorilla Foundation's Web site.

Alperin and Keller claimed in their suit that Patterson press ured them to "perform bizarre sexual acts with Koko," more specifically — they were told to show Koko their nipples, an act Patterson allegedly described as a bonding ritual that she herself indulged in with the five-foot-tall, 280-pound female lowland gorilla.

"Patterson would interpret certain hand movements made by Koko as a 'demand' to see exposed human nipples," their suit alleged. "[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."

Both women claimed they refused to show Koko their nipples.

In its response filed in a San Mateo County courthouse earlier this year, the Gorilla Foundation denied that Patterson ever translated Koko's communications into sexual requests.

"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 said. "There are no facts suggesting any discrimination based on conduct of a sexual nature."

A third plaintiff named in the suit, Sandra Marchese, claimed she was misled by Patterson when she was offered a research associate position, and then spent the majority of her time cleaning cages and mopping floors in an unsafe and unsanitary working environment.

All three women dropped their suit on Monday and the case was dismissed with prejudice, which means they may not sue the defendants again for the same complaints.

The Foundation appeared to be making legal headway this summer when a judge ruled that the plaintiff's initial complaint was insufficient to proceed with their suit.

But then both sides entered into settlement discussions in August, preempting the filing of an amended complaint by the women, which would have gone into greater detail about Koko's alleged nipple fetish and sexually aggressive behavior.

Patterson was studying developmental psychology in 1972 as a Stanford University graduate student when she began teaching sign language to a one-year-old baby gorilla named Hanabi-Ko.

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

"We are grateful to all of our supporters who offered words of encouragement and demonstrated their loyalty to the Foundation and the gorillas during the pendency of the suit," the Foundation said in its statement Wednesday. "This resolution will allow us to better focus our energies toward the noble efforts of saving gorillas from extinction, the establishment of the Maui Ape Preserve, and to educate the public."

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