Only it wouldn’t have been accurate. Ivan’s real home was in Central Africa, in the Congo, where he and another infant gorilla named Burma, thought to be his twin sister, were snatched by wildlife traders.
In 1964, Earl Irwin purchased the infant simians for $5,000. The exotic attraction was part of Irwin’s “World Famous B&I Circus Store” on South Tacoma Way. The circus-themed shopping center also featured llamas, a fighting chicken that lived in a vending machine and a seal that later died from swallowing coins tossed in his pond.
Six months after arrival, Burma died of chronic diarrhea. Ivan, weighing just nine pounds, went to live with the Johnston family, owners of the pet store inside the B&I. He shared a bedroom with young Larry Johnston, and sat at the family table eating his favorite meals of spaghetti and fried chicken.
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After a few years, Ivan got too big to handle; he was moved to a permanent enclosure inside the B&I. A very social animal by nature, he suddenly lived alone in a 14x14-foot concrete room, where he spent the next 27 years. Late-night television kept him company after hours.
Each day B&I visitors went to a dim corner of the mall and pounded on the glass to get Ivan’s attention. They imitated his posture and made ape-like grunts.
Over time, curiosity about Ivan transformed into outrage about his confinement. Studies on the intelligence of gorillas showed they were at the top of evolution’s ladder. Zoos were beginning to consider animals’ mental well-being along with their physical health.
The “Free Ivan” movement was born in the early ’90s. Zoo directors, animal-rights groups and children’s heartfelt letters from all over the U.S. urged the B&I to move Ivan to a zoo.
It took a bankruptcy filing to finally get Ivan a new home. In 1992, the company was forced to liquidate assets. Ivan was gifted to the Woodland Park Zoo who agreed to find him a home.
A national committee of gorilla experts picked Zoo Atlanta, which houses the largest group of captive western lowland gorillas in the nation; Ivan could finally mingle with members of his own species, and after three decades, once again feel the earth under his feet.
In Atlanta he was cared for by scientists. He spent his days finding the best shady spots and staring at the sky. Though he met with many females, he never fathered offspring; he preferred to keep to himself.
In 2012, Ivan died at age 50. Irwin’s grandchildren flew to Atlanta to collect his ashes. They pitched the idea of a memorial to the Tacoma Metro Parks board.
His life-size statue in front of the zoo is something to celebrate, but it’s also emblematic of a less enlightened era, a time when it was acceptable to exploit animals for commercial use. May his likeness be a reminder that cruel cages like the one he endured belong in the past. The “Friends of Ivan” who made the statue possible, hope that it will make people think about the precious- and increasingly endangered- lowland gorilla.
Ivan will forever be a Tacoma icon, though he never set foot at Point Defiance and the B&I was never a proper habitat. His real home will always be deep in a jungle far away from any zoo or shopping center.