“There aren’t any words to describe what a great job it was,” Joyce Barr said.
She looks wistful for a moment and then the words flow.
Barr was of two women who were the last keepers for Tacoma’s most famous son, Ivan the gorilla.
“I’ve worked with all kinds of animals but not one with that much intelligence,” she said, seated in the Key Center Library and speaking about her time with Ivan.
Barr spent over three years caring for him — up until when he was sent to Zoo Atlanta in 1994. She made his meals, cleaned his enclosure and kept him company.
Earlier this month, Barr, 63, hung an art show in the library. Along with a few photos of Ivan by Barr, the bulk of the work is paintings by the gorilla himself.
The colorful splatterings of paint clearly are abstract but seem to follow a pattern, a design only Ivan knew.
Painting is one of the many activities Ivan’s keepers used to keep his mind occupied. The keepers would supply the painting materials.
“If he wanted to paint, he would paint, and if not he’d shove it back. Or rip it up,” Barr said.
Visitors could buy the paintings as keepsakes during his time in Tacoma. Many were sold as part of a fundraiser, which is when Barr bought most of hers.
‘A CLOSE RELATIONSHIP’
Ivan came to the United States in 1964, after animal traders captured him in Africa. He was bought by the Irwin family, the owners of the B&I Shopping Center on South Tacoma Way.
Ivan went to live with the Johnston family, who owned the pet store at B&I, at their house on South 72nd Street. There, they raised him as a member of the household.
He eventually grew too big and too strong to live with the family, so at 5 years of age, Ivan moved to an indoor enclosure at the B & I.
He spent the next 27 years there.
Originally from Ohio, Barr worked as a girl on a farm in exchange for boarding her pony. It’s there she learned to care for animals.
She and her husband came to Tacoma when he was stationed at Fort Lewis in 1984. A year later she started working at the pet store at the B&I. Nearby was Ivan’s enclosure.
“We would take our lunch breaks and feed him peanuts,” Barr said.
Ivan enjoyed the quick visits, Barr said. But when she became his keeper in 1991 his attitude changed.
“He had to have known that when someone new started working someone else was leaving,” Barr said. “He really gave me a hard time.”
Ivan would pretend he was fine with Barr and then, when she turned her back, poke her through the bars of his enclosure. Barr was always separated from the huge gorilla, who possessed strength many times that of a human.
About eight months after Barr started working with Ivan she came to work one day in a state of distress. Her two sons had left home and she was having a severe case of empty nest syndrome.
“I’m sitting there crying, wiping my eyes,” Barr recalled. “He comes and sits on the other side of the bars and he starts tapping. He puts his hand out so I gave him a paper towel.”
Ivan used it to mimic Barr wiping her eyes.
“That made me start laughing,” she said. “That’s the moment he let me into his world.”
“It was a close relationship,” Barr says.
LIFE WITH IVAN
Ivan liked female keepers.
“If men came back there he would display,” Barr said.
That meant standing up and glaring at strange males.
When upset, Ivan would gently bite his fingers.
But most days were good ones, Barr said.
“He liked treats,” Barr she said. “If you went and got him an ice cream, you were his buddy.”
Though the keepers fed him fruit and vegetables, he had a fondness for the food he grew up with in the Johnston household.
One of his favorites were eggs.
From a pouch she brought to the library, Barr gently pulled out two eggshells as if they are relics. Each bore a small hole at one end.
Ivan would roll an egg to determine if it was raw or hard-boiled. If raw, he would gently tap a small hole in one end, Barr explained.
“Then he would suck everything out,” she said.
And if it was boiled?
“He had to peel it. He didn’t like that,” Barr said. “He had to work for those ones.”
One day Barr walked in with a caramel latte.
“I poured a little bit, let it cool and handed it to him, not thinking about the caffeine,” she said. “He ran my butt off that day.”
Keeping company with Ivan meant a lot of games. They played the Mother Goose “This Little Piggy” finger game with Ivan’s toes.
“One day I pinched too hard on ‘wee-wee-wee’ and he got ticked off,” Barr said.
Ivan would race Barr and his other keeper, Tonya Hill. According to Barr, Ivan was not beyond cheating.
‘BEST JOB I EVER HAD’
Over the years, the plight of endangered gorillas in the wild became more well known. Ivan’s life behind bars made him a cause célèbre, even attracting the attention of Michael Jackson.
Barr tried to stay out of the debate but had an opinion.
“Yeah, we wanted him out of the store,” she said, adding she would have preferred to see him housed at Point Defiance Zoo.
“So everybody that had grown up watching him and brought their kids and grandkids can see him and he could see them,” she said.
Instead he went to Zoo Atlanta.
“It was traumatic for all of us,” Barr said.
She and Hill spent Ivan’s first 10 days with him in his new city.
“To this day, it kind of haunts me about what he must have thought when we left,” Barr said. “He must have been lonely. He was a humanized gorilla.”
Barr did make one trip to see Ivan in 2003.
“I knew he would be mad,” she said.
She entered an enclosure near his. When Ivan spotted Barr he didn’t seem happy, like a jilted lover seeing the object of his affection.
“When I looked at him he would look away,” she said. “He was mad.”.
It was the last time she would see Ivan. He died at Zoo Atlanta in 2012 at age 50.
Barr will be able to visit Ivan again when a bronze statue of him is placed at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in the fall.
But she knows it won’t be the same.
“It was the best job I ever had,” she said, wistful again.
‘The Ivan I Knew’
What: Paintings by Ivan the gorilla
Where: Key Center Library, 8905 KPN, Lakebay
When: Though October
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday