If you lived in – or even passed through – Tacoma in the last half century, that’s likely all you needed to hear.
Ivan was so much a part of Tacoma’s heart and soul, you could hear palpitations rippling across Puget Sound on Tuesday.
Our collective hearts skipped a beat.
“Ivan died,” I told a co-worker.
There was no “Ivan who?”
Instead, it was, “Oh, no!”
For Tacomans – indeed all of Puget Sound - Ivan was by turns our fiercely defended family “pet, “our forever friend,” a beloved uncle who moved back East – and took our community DNA with him.
“How sad,” said my colleague, Elisabeth Albers. “I remember going to see him at the B&I when I was growing up. I would beg my parents to take me.”
I completely got it.
I hadn’t lived in the Tacoma area long when I heard about the gorilla who lived in the curious place everyone called “the B&I” or just the “Circus Store.”
“No way!” I said.
“It’s true,” a coworker answered.
I immediately went to see for myself. I was awed. Awed at Ivan’s size. Amazed by his surroundings. Astonished anyone would keep a wild animal in a quirky South Tacoma Way department store.
It was unsettling to me. Surely a magnificent gorilla belonged in the wild – or at least in a zoo with others of his species. Not in a darkened cage watching television all day as kids pressed their noses against the glass and banged on it with their hands.
I also was fascinated beyond measure. I couldn’t look away.
And I immediately did what every other Puget Sound area parent of the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s and early ‘90s did. I told my boys.
Rusty and Ryan couldn’t wait.
“Can we go right now, Mom? Can we? Can we?” It was late on a Sunday. We bribed them to behave until the next weekend.
They loved seeing Ivan. My husband and I loved their curiosity – and their compassion. It was cool he was in a store where people could see him, but wasn’t he lonely, they wanted to know.
They were difficult questions to answer.
In many ways, Ivan – by his very presence in our midst – taught us the answers.
Through a single western lowland gorilla, we learned things we might never have known about love, about loss, about the bittersweet of physically letting go.
My son Rusty thought “it was kind of sad that they had him in a concrete box.” But we went to see Ivan more than once. More than twice. OK, several times.
As a journalist, I needed to remain objective. But I silently agreed with Rusty’s first assessment.
As a mother, I wanted to educate my sons about nature, about conserving habitat and protecting species.
As a reporter, I hope I did both.
I persuaded my bosses at The News Tribune to send me to Atlanta in 2004 to report on Ivan firsthand, to give Tacomans a letter home from their B&I Boy.
He did not disappoint. His story was about finding his niche in a sun-dappled habitat. He became the “silverback,” or dominant, male in a family group.
He was content. He was happy. He was in a large tree-and-vegetation filled exhibit with room to roam. Keepers described him as a “chow hound” who loved gorilla food mix, fruits and vegetables, Cheerios, raisins and popcorn.
He never produced offspring, though he was affectionate with the ladies. He was at home with others of his species, though he frequently hung out alone in the exhibit.
But he’d often amble over to the viewing glass, angling his Kong-like head toward the kids at the window. A zookeeper said it was possible Ivan recalled his time on display in Tacoma, young hands just inches away, scrabbling to be closer to the big gorilla, who was himself a storehouse of curiosity.
Perhaps that angling toward the Zoo Atlanta glass, the dark eyes intently searching, was the universal gorilla sign for a salute west – to the place where he grew up.
Certainly, we wanted to believe he knew he had a human family missing him and loving him a continent away.
And glad that he – the one and only Ivan – had found a new place to call home.
Kris Sherman is a former staff writer at The News Tribune.