Ivan the gorilla, who spent 27 years on display in a south Tacoma shopping center, died Monday at Zoo Atlanta, his home for the past 18 years.

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The first time he ventured into his outdoor compound at Zoo Atlanta, Ivan the gorilla was hesitant. It had been 27 years since he walked in the sunshine and felt grass under his feet. But after a few false starts, the silverback marched over to a crowd watching from behind a window and pounded the glass with his fist.

It was the same gesture that delighted and terrorized generations of children in the Pacific Northwest, who grew up visiting the ape at the Tacoma shopping center where he spent so much of his life.

“It was just the coolest thing to see him when I was a little girl,” Kelley Carter said. After learning Ivan died Monday, the Tacoma woman spent much of Tuesday reminiscing with friends on Facebook. “It’s amazing how many people he touched from my era.”

But even as a child, Carter recognized there was something disturbing about the gorilla’s solitary cage at what used to be called The World Famous B&I Circus Store. By the time he was moved to Atlanta in 1995, Ivan’s shopping-center home was seen as an embarrassing throwback to the past.

Animal-welfare activists and primate experts mounted a three-year crusade to get the gorilla transferred to a zoo where he could live in a more natural habitat and enjoy the company of his own species.

Ivan was between 48 and 50 years old when he died in Atlanta, which puts him among the longest-lived captive gorillas. He had been in declining health for several months, suffering from arthritis and loss of appetite, said Dwight Lawson, Zoo Atlanta’s deputy director.

Knowing it was a risk, worried zookeepers anesthetized him for a physical exam Monday. “He simply never woke up from the anesthesia,” Lawson said. “He passed away quietly.”

During his 18 years at the zoo, Ivan lived with a rotating harem of females. Though he never fathered any offspring, he thrived there.

“He was a very special animal,” said Terry Maple, the former Zoo Atlanta director who helped orchestrate Ivan’s transfer. “He lived a peaceful and happy life, and he lived a long life.”

Snatched from wild

Starting with his capture in the jungles of western Africa in 1964, Ivan’s story took more twists than a Hollywood thriller — including a cameo appearance by Michael Jackson.

B&I founder Earl Irwin wanted a gorilla to display as one of his many promotional schemes. He arranged to buy a young animal snatched from the wild.

The infant Ivan was lost in shipment, arriving in Tacoma frail and sick. The Johnston family, who operated the pet store at the B&I, nursed him back to health and raised him in their home like a child. Larry Johnston was 13 when he found himself with a hairy little brother.

Ivan sat at the table for meals, loved to watch the J.P. Patches show on television and had a taste for fried chicken. “He was part of our clan,” Johnston said Tuesday.

When Johnston got a motorcycle, Ivan rode on the back. Johnston shared his bed with Ivan every night. Sometimes before they fell asleep, Ivan would reach out and touch his human brother’s face.

Ron Irwin, son of Earl, visited often. “Ivan would swing from anything that wasn’t nailed down — the curtains to the lamps to the shades,” Irwin recalled.

Following the advice of gorilla experts, the Irwins and Johnstons caged Ivan at the B&I when he was about 3 years old and becoming too big to handle. In retrospect, Irwin regrets it. “They said: Throw away the key. This is King Kong. He’ll kill you. But that wasn’t right.”

Ivan was distraught at being separated from the only family he knew. Larry Johnston and his father slept on cots outside the cage for two months to comfort the young gorilla. Ivan would spend the next 27 years in the concrete compound.

The B&I menagerie included a baby elephant, seals, bears and flamingos. But Ivan was the star attraction, visited regularly by children across the region.

The gorilla got what was considered the best possible care, Johnston said. It wasn’t until decades later that zoos began to realize it was inhumane to keep social creatures like primates in isolation. In the late 1970s, Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and others began building lush, outdoor environments that mimicked natural habitat.

A 1991 documentary called “The Urban Gorilla” sparked the “free Ivan” campaign, featuring him as a sad example of the way gorillas used to be housed.

Protesters descended on the South Tacoma shopping complex when Ron Irwin, by then the owner, resisted moving Ivan. The PR battle continued for three years, through a bruising bankruptcy fight between Irwin and his sister. In the meantime, lawyers for Michael Jackson inquired about moving Ivan to the star’s Neverland ranch in California.

“He was going to build the best gorilla compound in the world,” Irwin said. But even the King of Pop couldn’t get a permit to house Ivan in his private zoo.

A bankruptcy trustee finally struck the deal to transfer Ivan to Atlanta.

“I still feel frustrated that it took so many machinations to do what was clearly right for Ivan,” said Mitchell Fox, who led the campaign for the Progressive Animal Welfare Society.


At Zoo Atlanta, Ivan was eased back into gorilla society. His first introduction to the opposite sex didn’t go well, with the females chasing him around the cage. Ivan eventually seemed comfortable with most of his female companions, said Charles Horton, his former keeper at Zoo Atlanta. But Ivan never fully embraced the role of a dominant silverback.

“He was always a little ambivalent about other gorillas,” Horton said. The one report of Ivan mating might have been a false alarm, Horton said. At any rate, he never repeated the maneuver.

For Fox, the campaign to move Ivan was about improving his life, not leaving progeny. “To me, it was a home run,” he said.

Nearly two decades later, even those who opposed the move agree. “It was wonderful the way it worked out,” Irwin said. “You couldn’t hope for better.”

There’s a chance Ivan will be coming back to the Pacific Northwest posthumously. Technically, he was on loan from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. The agreement specified that his remains be returned, Lawson said.

Does that mean company for Bobo, the late Woodland Park gorilla whose skeleton and stuffed remains have been displayed in local museums?

“That would be weird,” Irwin said.

Seattle Times staff researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.