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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Koko Is Free

Published 02/25/10
By Alena Caldwell, Guest Blogger

Tuesday, Feb. 13th, 2007: As I sat in my office going through my usual morning routine of sipping coffee and skimming my favorite online news outlets, I came upon the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGATE.com. They have a section called “Day in Pictures” which hosts a few random photos of people, animals, and places around the globe.

Little did I know the picture I would come across would forever change the life of one courageous animal — and my own.

Koko’s photo was small in size but the sadness in his eyes was large and rang loud. A brief blurb next to the photo read, “Poor Koko: Koko, a depressed chimpanzee living alone in miserable conditions, peers from his cage at Skopje Zoo in Macedonia. Efforts to find him a home abroad in another zoo have failed. A female mate might cheer him up, but the zoo has no money to acquire one.”

I couldn’t get Koko’s face out of my mind. I told myself, “Surely someone out there is helping him. What can I really do for an animal many thousands of miles away anyway? Where exactly is Macedonia?”

What if no one was on the case? What if there was no rescue effort in place for Koko?

I hung a large sheet of construction paper on my kitchen wall and started a chronology of my efforts.

Not knowing where to begin, I decided to call the Skopje Zoo in Macedonia and speak to the zookeeper. A valiant effort which was unsuccessful. Hey, but it was worth a try, right?!

Next, I contacted zoos in the US, asking if they had any openings for Koko. All to no avail.

I reached out to people at work, friends, family explaining Koko’s plight and asking for help. I called the San Francisco Chronicle and asked if they had more details on Koko and if they could help in any way. No luck! I did befriend their photo editor who kept in regular contact with me and offered moral support.

Then I found Born Free’s website. Adam Roberts, VP of their US office, was my hero as he responded back to my desperate email asking for assistance. Within a few months, I flew to London and met Adam, Will, and their team and we’ve been Koko’s biggest advocates ever since.

As Born Free worked tirelessly to secure Koko’s transfer and new home, I threw “Koko dinner parties” and talked with anyone who would listen. Almost three years later, Koko was finally transferred to a beautiful primate sanctuary outside of Amsterdam (he is pictured here in their temporary quarantine facility) and, with the help of others, I was able to raise $6,000 for his care in the sanctuary.

What I’ve learned is that one person can make a difference just by taking action. Without the help, tenacity and patience of Adam, Will, and their team, Koko would not have the bright future ahead of him like he does today. I am inspired by the efforts of Born Free and our benefactors.

Little does Koko know how much he’s enhanced my life.

The construction paper of Koko’s chronology still hangs on my kitchen wall, but I’m proud to say it’s no longer a work in progress.

Thank you Born Free and thank you sweet Koko.


A native of San Francisco, Alena Caldwell is an active supporter of Born Free USA and volunteers with the Jewish Family & Children Services. She lives and works in the Bay Area in California.

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