Ivan the gorilla, arguably Tacoma’s most famous resident and a much-beloved ambassador for the animal rights movement, died Monday at Atlanta’s zoo.
The 50-year old silverback gorilla spent most of his life in a steel and concrete cage at the B&I Shopping Center, a circus-themed mall on South Tacoma Way, where he was viewed with a mixture of fascination and pity by a generation of shoppers.
After an emotional and internationally followed custody dispute in the early 1990s, Ivan was moved to Zoo Atlanta, where he struggled with mixed success to adjust to life with other gorillas.
Ivan was at an advanced age for gorillas and had been suffering from several physical problems, officials at Atlanta’s zoo said. He died while under general anesthetic for a diagnostic exam.
“He basically died in his sleep,” said Dr. Hayley Murphy, director of veterinary services at the zoo.
Ivan’s Facebook page (yes, he has one), filled Tuesday with emotional reminiscences of people who had encountered Ivan as children visiting the B&I.
Some apologized for teasing him, and many recalled the special inter-species relationship they believed they had established with the gorilla while looking into his eyes through the bars of his cage.
Ivan and a female companion were captured in 1962 in what’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo when they were about 6 months old. (She died about six months after arriving in Tacoma.)
Ivan was raised almost as a human child with a Tacoma family who spoon-fed him and had him wear diapers. He was moved to the B&I in 1964, when his weight topped 60 pounds and he became too dangerous as a human companion. Ivan eventually grew to more than 400 pounds.
The B&I held a contest to name the two gorillas. The rules were that one name had to start with a “B,” one with an “I” and there had to be a girl’s name and a boy’s name. The winner got $500. The winning names were Ivan and Burma.
Ivan became a symbol for the animal liberation movement in the early 1990s, when the ethical arguments of animal rights philosopher Peter Singer began gaining ground in public opinion.
The human-raised gorilla’s confinement raised an ethical question, the answer to which now seems obvious but then did not: Was Ivan better off solitary in a concrete cage, cared for by people who knew him and loved him? Or would he be better off in an unfamiliar zoo, where he could spend time outdoors and socialize with his own species?
“Freeing” Ivan became a cause célèbre in 1991 after National Geographic featured him in a television special on modern gorilla zoo exhibits – elaborate spaces where gorillas lived in family groups and “natural” surroundings.
National Geographic used Ivan’s grim cage at the B&I for contrast in its production, pointing out that decades of primate research showed gorillas are social creatures who need the company of their own species and a stimulating environment to live healthy, normal lives.
The summer after the National Geographic special ran, more than 8,000 people signed local and national petitions urging Ivan’s owner, B&I vice president Ron Irwin, to give Ivan up to a zoo.
The news program “Hard Copy” ran a segment on Pamela Rockstead, an 11-year-old Oakwood Elementary School fifth-grader who collected 1,600 signatures on “Free Ivan” petitions.
Singer Michael Jackson offered to take Ivan in at Neverland, his fantasyland enclave in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, an offer that was declined as impractical, since Jackson had no facilities for a gorilla nor any prospect of getting more gorillas to keep Ivan company.
Animal rights activists picketed the B&I and urged a boycott of the shopping center, vowing to keep the pressure on for as long as it took to get Ivan someplace where he could live with other gorillas.
The widespread media coverage casting the Irwin family as villains did not quite fit.
Irwin insisted he had Ivan’s best interests at heart and that pulling the human-raised gorilla out of his familiar surroundings and putting him in a zoo could traumatize him. He and the rest of his family worried Ivan might fight to the death with other gorillas.
“He’s like a member of my family,” Irwin’s sister, Mary Lou Borgert, said in 1993. “It’s like I have to adopt him out. I want to make sure he will go somewhere where his emotional, physical and psychological health is maintained.”
Ron Irwin said Tuesday that he knew Ivan’s health had been declining in the past week, but that didn’t stop him from choking up while recalling memories of the primate.
“We were very close to him,” Irwin said. “He was a real part of the family.”
In the end, Ivan’s fate turned not on ethics but on business.
In 1993, the B&I was forced into bankruptcy, and a court-ordered reorganization plan stipulated it would be in the best interest of the business to move Ivan to a zoo because he had become a financial liability.
After the bankruptcy court’s decision, the Irwins sought a compromise: Instead of shipping Ivan off to Atlanta or Dallas, where there were sophisticated gorilla facilities, why not move him into the zoo at Point Defiance, where the people who knew and loved Ivan could visit him.
Point Defiance had no gorillas and zoo officials said it would take several years and several million dollars to build an exhibit, with no guarantee that other gorillas could be recruited from other zoos.
Instead, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo agreed to assume responsibility for Ivan, but because they had no room in their gorilla exhibit, Ivan would go to Zoo Atlanta on permanent loan.
On Tuesday, officials at one of the organizations that lobbied seven years for Ivan’s release said they were saddened by the death of the “gentle giant.”
“Ivan’s case is a shining example of the amazing change a caring community can inspire,” said Mark Coleman a spokesman for PAWS. “His story now teaches kids in our community that they truly can make a difference in the lives of others.”
Ivan was compatible with several female gorillas who lived in the same habitat over the years and was seen mating at least once in Atlanta, but he never fathered any offspring.
It was unclear Tuesday about what will happen to Ivan’s body.
Irwin said part of the agreement of Ivan going to Atlanta was that his family would get to determine where Ivan’s remains would go upon his death. They’re still deciding where that will be, he said.
Other reports stated that Ivan’s remains would be sent to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington for use in research. A call to the museum Tuesday was not returned.
The B&I still has traces of Ivan’s stay. His picture is on the sign out front, and a trailer that was his second home is still out back. The store also has a wall of Ivan photos as well as the cage Woodland Park Zoo built for him and the glass room he stayed in for years.
Mike Barton, who helped care for Ivan when he worked at the store as a teenager and eventually bought the business in 1983, said he’ll probably do something at the store to honor Ivan, but he wasn’t sure what.
“I’m still kind of reeling, trying to clear my head after his passing,” Barton said.
Staff writers Stacia Glenn and Alexis Krell, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press contributed to this report.