The Key Center Library and the Gig Harbor library were recently given donations of art depicting Ivan the Gorilla in different moods thanks to his past handler.
Joyce Barr, the last person to work as the gorilla’s keeper before Ivan was transferred to a zoo, is hoping the photos she shares will educate future generations about Ivan, gorillas and how animals express themselves.
“I’d love to make a program for children,” Barr said. “Ivan was gentle and good with kids. Animals can detect emotion, and Ivan could pick up on them. I want children to learn about that.”
Barr, a Key Peninsula resident, has a large collection of photos and VHS tapes of Ivan from his days in Tacoma. She started putting together collages where she labeled his different emotions and behaviors. Some photos show Ivan when he was angry or upset, some show him playing and other show him on the defense.
Barr hopes the libraries will use her photos as a way to help children learn more about animals, including exotic animals such as gorillas.
Ivan 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.
Although Ivan was not the only wild and exotic animal in the store, he was the main attraction.
“He would watch me and get jealous when I cleaned other animal’s cages,” Barr said. “He liked having all the attention.”
Barr worked at the pet store located inside B&I before she became Ivan’s handler in 1992. Ivan had been moved from overseas after he was purchased by the Irwin family. When he first came to Tacoma, he was unwell from far travel so the Johnston family, who owned the nearby pet shop, took Ivan home and raised him like a child, according to News Tribune archives.
He loved Christmas. He would see us decorating and he would get excited. We would get him a Christmas tree filled with oranges and I’d give him phone books.
A few years later Ivan was placed in his habitat in the B&I store, where he lived for more than 30 years.
Barr said Ivan preferred female keepers and enjoyed potato chips, when Barr rubbed his head, Seahawks football games and Christmas.
“He loved Christmas,” Barr said. “He would see us decorating and he would get excited. We would get him a Christmas tree filled with oranges and I’d give him phone books.”
Barr said she quickly learned that Ivan communicated through body language and he was able to use the body language from his keepers to assess their emotions as well.
“One day I came to work and I was just really sad. I had stayed up all night crying,” Barr said. “And I took some time and sat down and started to cry. And I kept wiping my eyes with a paper towel. Well, Ivan came up and made a motion and I figured he wanted a paper towel. He took the towel and started putting it to his eyes and pointing. He made me laugh because he was mocking me.”
After a documentary about gorillas living in urban enclosures was released in the late 1990s, a movement to place Ivan in a open habitat in a zoo began. Within a couple years Ivan was purchased by the Seattle Zoo and moved, on loan, to a zoo in Atlanta. Ivan lived in Atlanta for another 20 years. He died in 2006 at 50 years old.
A statue of the gorilla is now at the entrance of Point Defiance Zoo.
Barr said giving photo collages to local libraries is just the first step in sharing her memories of Ivan with residents in Gig Harbor and Tacoma. She is currently working to digitize her VHS tapes and find ways to make digital copies of photos. She also possess some of Ivan’s paintings from his days at B&I.
“My overall thing is I want to tell Ivan’s story,” Barr said. “And I hope by doing that I can get more children interested in animals and animal behavior.”