WOODSIDE, Calif. - Two fired caretakers for Koko, the
world-famous sign-language-speaking gorilla, have sued their former bosses,
claiming they were pressured to expose their breasts as a way of bonding with
the 300-pound simian.
Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller, both of San Francisco, claim they were
subjected to sexual discrimination and then wrongfully terminated after
reporting health and safety violations at Koko's home in Woodside, an upscale
town in the south San Francisco Bay area.
The lawsuit against the Gorilla Foundation and its president, Francine
"Penny" Patterson, the longtime trainer of the well-known gorilla, was filed
this week in San Mateo County Superior Court. It seeks damages totaling more
than $1 million.
Foundation attorney Todd Roberts said the case mischaracterizes the
foundation and turns a "purported employment issue" into publicity "hurtful" for
a reputable organization.
"We unequivocally deny these allegations and are confident that this case
lacks merit," Roberts said.
Alperin and Keller were hired last year and were among 16 employees of the
foundation, which was founded in 1976 to promote the preservation and study of
gorillas. It is best known for Koko, who has mastered a vocabulary of more than
1,000 signs; the foundation says she has advanced further in language than any
The suit claims Patterson pressured the two women on several occasions to
expose their breasts to Koko, a 33-year-old female - sometimes in situations
where other employees could potentially view their bodies. The women never
undressed, said their attorney, Stephen Sommers of San Francisco.
They were threatened that if they "did not indulge Koko's nipple fetish,
their employment with the Gorilla Foundation would suffer," the lawsuit
The lawsuit claims that on one occasion Patterson said, "'Koko, you see my
nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see
In addition to the alleged harassment, the two former workers claimed the
Woodside facility had unsanitary and unsafe conditions, including rodents in the
food preparation area and gorilla urine stored in the refrigerator where workers
kept their lunches.
They complained to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health
and were fired on Aug. 6, the day after inspectors visited the site and found
code violations, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also claims the nonprofit failed to pay for overtime and provide