It's only natural for a gorilla to be curious about human breasts, said Malinda Zeilinger, a retired Gorilla Foundation employee.
The Woodside-based nonprofit foundation, home to Koko, the 33-year-old gorilla famous for her sign-language skills, is being sued by three former employees claiming they were pressured by research director Francine "Penny" Patterson to expose their breasts to indulge Koko's fascination with nipples.
Nancy Alperin, 47, Kendra Keller, 48, and Iris Rivera, 39, are asking for about $1.5 million in damages.
The foundation denies the allegations, and in a telephone conversation Tuesday, Zeilinger dismissed the lawsuits as "laughable."
Zeilinger, who recently retired as the foundation's evening monitor, said the plaintiffs "weren't good employees" and overreacted to Koko's childlike curiosity.
"Sometimes I'd come to work with glitter on (my blouse), and she'd want to see what's under that," Zeilinger said. "If a little child comes up and looks under your skirt, you don't find that disgusting.
"It's not like anything gets filmed. It's not like there's a lot of men around," she added. "Most mature adults would just think, 'ho-hum.'"
Koko, who has displayed a maternal instinct with pet kittens, might also wonder if women are nursing under certain types of shirts, Zeilinger said.
Winnie Green, a San Mateo resident who volunteered at the foundation from 1987 to 1997 and continues to donate money, said she played racing and tug-of-war games with Koko but was never asked to bare her breasts. Nevertheless, she agreed the request indicated a healthy curiosity in the female gorilla.
"She's curious about why humans cover their chest when gorillas don't," she said. "There are no sexual implications whatsoever."
Green's primary concern is that the money raised for a 70-acre gorilla sanctuary in Maui will now be spent on fighting the lawsuits. According to tax reports, the Gorilla Foundation raises about $2 million a year.
Hertha Harrington, a Woodside resident who met Koko twice in the early 1990s during a campaign to halt logging near the 6-acre preserve, said she became disturbed by the gorilla's familiarity with humans and childish habits.
"This is not a gorilla anymore," she said. "She has lost whatever connection she had with being a wild animal."
Although the foundation has long nursed hopes that Koko will breed, her refusal to mate with two male companions by age 33 — four years younger than the oldest gorilla to give birth in captivity — indicates an identity crisis, Harrington said.
Koko's alleged interest in breasts could be the result of Patterson's efforts to "get Koko to think of herself as a sexual animal," she speculated. But the last time Harrington saw Koko, the gorilla's fascination was with two different areas of the human body. "She loved seeing pregnant women's bellies, and she was nuts for gold teeth," Harrington said.
Around town, Woodside residents who have never met their friendly neighborhood ape are scratching their heads over the "nipple fetish" allegations that have turned their exclusive suburb into an international punchline.
Jamis MacNiven, owner of Buck's Restaurant, said he had previously heard rumors of "disgruntled employees" at the Gorilla Foundation, but has only heard jokes about the latest news.
"Once you teach a gorilla to talk, they're going to ask for whatever they can get," he said, laughing. "I'm always inspired to get naked in front of a gorilla, but that's just probably me."