Jodi Carrigan stared at Ivan the gorilla’s likeness Wednesday as she fought back tears and gave in to a smile.
She marveled at the chubby fingers and soulful eyes of the 600-pound bronze sculpture of the gorilla she cared for at Zoo Atlanta until his death in 2012.
“Four years later, after his passing, we are still smiling at the memories of him,” Carrigan said. “He was a unique and special gorilla with a strong and distinctive personality.”
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She spoke before dozens of people who stood in the rain to watch the unveiling of Ivan’s life-size statue outside the main entrance at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
Many said it felt like the Tacoma icon had come home.
The gorilla lived the first 30 years of his life in Tacoma, mostly at the circus-themed B&I shopping mall on South Tacoma Way, where he starred in thousands of childhood memories.
Even after Ivan was sent to live at Zoo Atlanta in 1995, Puget Sound residents flew to Atlanta to see him again, because they missed the ape who banged on the glass in his enclosure to startle visitors and laughed uproariously.
“From our perspective, he was part of us,” said Earl Borgert, whose grandfather started the B&I. “He was part of the community.”
Both cities mourned when Ivan died Aug. 20, 2012, while undergoing a diagnostic exam after suffering weeks of digestive problems and arthritis.
He was 50.
Borgert and his sister traveled to Atlanta to claim the gorilla’s ashes, which are now mingled in the bronze memorial.
Then Borgert came home and pitched the idea of an Ivan statue to the Tacoma Metro Parks Board of Commissioners.
That led to creation of Friends of Ivan, which raised $247,354 to create the nearly 6-foot-tall statue.
Chris Zemanek, president and CEO of Ruth Foundation, was the first to offer a sizable donation to kick off the project, which included a 3-D printing of more than 100 pieces later welded together into the form of the western lowland gorilla.
“Ivan’s an icon,” Zemanek said. “People loved him and we wanted to honor his life.”
Ivan spent most of his life in the spotlight.
He grabbed attention as a youngster when he lived with Larry Johnston’s family, which owned the pet store at B&I. Ivan wore diapers, slept in then-13-year-old Johnston’s bed and accompanied the family to the grocery store.
He was an instant hit after moving into a B&I compound, where visitors would stare at him through the glass.
After National Geographic featured Ivan in a special on modern gorilla zoo exhibits and used him as the contrast, efforts to “free” him intensified in 1991. Pop star Michael Jackson even offered to take Ivan.
The Irwin family eventually agreed to send him to Zoo Atlanta, where he met other gorillas for the first time and lived in a naturalistic environment.
A News Tribune photograph showing Ivan inspecting a magnolia blossom was taken the day he moved into his new enclosure.
The image was used to model the sculpture.
When Joanna Robinson first saw Ivan’s statue, she was struck by the likeness of the gorilla she’d come to know during a decade of volunteering at Zoo Atlanta.
“It’s like you were finally standing next to Ivan without the barrier,” she said. “I got to touch his head, his hand.”
Although the statue now stands outside Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the display isn’t quite finished. A series of interpretive panels to teach visitors about Ivan’s legacy and the perils faced by gorillas in the wild are still to come.
“It’s not only a statue, it’s a cause,” Borgert said.
“I believe all our lives have a purpose, and Ivan’s life may have been to speak about his species.”
An estimated 125,000 western lowland gorillas remain in Western equatorial Africa. Cameroon is home to roughly 300 Cross River gorillas.
About 2,000 to 10,000 Grauer’s gorillas and just 800 mountain gorillas live in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“His legacy is tremendous, and it’s a legacy that will always live to benefit his species,” Carrigan said.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653