Shortly after the sculpture of Ivan the gorilla was unveiled at the entrance to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, The News Tribune carried an editorial to honor the event. Near the end of the editorial came this statement: “May his likeness be a reminder that cruel cages like the one he endured belong in the past.”
This statement unfortunately misses the bigger meaning of Ivan’s memory. Further, it fails to recognize the actual details of Ivan’s enclosure at the B&I circus store in Tacoma.
First let me correct the assumption that Ivan’s enclosure in Tacoma was limited to the viewing space referenced in the TNT editorial. In fact, Ivan’s home consisted also of an unseen 1,500-square-foot area that provided a pond, toys, outside area, ropes for tug of war with his caretakers and friends, and yes a TV. This footprint is on display today at the B&I.
Now that we have dispelled the assumption that Ivan’s meaning comes from his being caged with cruelty, we can address his authentic legacy.
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Western lowland gorillas have been placed on the endangered species list. Today it is estimated that fewer than 100,000 of Ivan’s kind exist, down 60 percent from just two decades ago, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The threat to the survival of western lowland gorillas comes primarily from human actions. Deforestation due to human population growth reduces the gorilla population approximately 5 percent annually. The hunting of gorillas for bush meat, considered a delicacy in some places, and other illegal poaching activities also diminish populations.
In addition, Ebola and other diseases endanger gorillas as they do humans.
As with all species, these marvelous creatures are part of the larger ecosystem of Earth. Moreover, they and we possess 98 percent of the same DNA. From the study and observation of gorillas, we learn about our own natures.
The University of Washington has engaged in genome study of western lowland gorillas and their relationship to humans. (“UW Today” March 7, 2012, UW Health Sciences.)
The sculptural presence of Ivan communicates the majesty of these mammals. The interpretive signs that will surround him tell his story and the story of western lowland gorillas.
Generations will learn of the gentle, family oriented nature of gorillas in the wild. This experience is intended to inspire concern for their welfare and action to assist their survival. With enlightened caging of animals, we all learn to appreciate them.
These are the lessons that the memorial monument of Ivan shares with us. We can all be grateful to the community of donors, sponsors and volunteers who have brought Ivan home to Tacoma, where he lived for 30 years.
We are the caretakers of our cousin gorillas. Seeing Ivan representing them helps us understand and love them. That is his meaning and legacy for visitors to our remarkable Point Defiance.
Jane Shanaman, a longtime Tacoma and Lakewood resident now living on the Kitsap Peninsula, is coordinator of the Beloved Ivan project. For more information, go to belovedivan.org.