At age 50, he was among the oldest gorillas in captivity.
A likeness of Ivan the gorilla is coming to Tacoma in the form of a life-size bronze sculpture. And his own DNA is incorporated, as his ashes are added to each pour that will form the finished piece. Poachers in the animal trade killed Ivan’s parents in what is now Congo sometime around 1962, setting off his journey to the United States as an infant. The silverback western lowland gorilla moved into the Johnston home in Tacoma, where he lived just like any other family member. He raided the refrigerator, slept in bed with 13-year-old Larry, ate at the table, climbed the curtains and tore up the couch. He also snapped a leg off the dining-room table, which had to be moved so he could not get to the light fixtures above. Larry, now 65, says, “He was my bud.” The Johnstons had a zoo license and kept a variety of animals on display in leased space at the B&I, a local department store. After more than three years in the house, the 65-pound Ivan moved into a compound built for him in the B&I with full-time attendants, a black-and-white television set, a waterfall, climbing bars, a fountain, radiant heat and a small outside area. He grew to be 500 pounds. He “painted regularly and played with toys to keep him mentally active,” said Ron Irwin, former owner of the B&I. For the next 27 years, Ivan was an attraction in the B&I, along with two elephants and other animals owned by the Johnstons. “It was nuts,” Irwin says. The animal-rights movement and publicity surrounding Ivan’s captivity grew. Pop superstar Michael Jackson wanted to buy Ivan for his Neverland Ranch in California, saying he’d build the best compound ever for the solitary gorilla. Jackson could not get the necessary permits, but notoriety around Ivan continued to swell. “Now Ivan’s a celebrity,” Irwin recalled. In 1994, Ivan moved to Zoo Atlanta and tried to adjust. He preferred the companionship of his keepers to the female troop of resident gorillas, Irwin said. He died there in 2012, while under anesthesia during a medical exam. Related story: Aged, beloved Ivan the gorilla from Tacoma dies at Atlanta zoo (August 2012) At age 50, he was among the oldest gorillas in captivity. He was cremated, and his remains were returned to the Johnstons. Now, Ivan will be reborn as a 600- to 700-pound sculpture, to be placed this fall at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, at a cost of more than $250,000. The money is being raised through donations and other fundraising efforts. Artist Douglas Granum based his piece on a Dean Koepfler photograph from the News Tribune in Tacoma. It shows Ivan holding a magnolia blossom. He seems to be considering its beauty but is actually about to eat it. Granum said, “Gorillas share 98 percent of our DNA. They suffer relentless human pressures.” The movie “King Kong” created misconceptions that continue about gorillas, Irwin said. “Worst movie for gorillas ever made. (Ivan) didn’t have a mean bone in his body.” Granum said, “The point is to understand the true nature of gorillas. He was a stranger in a strange land and touched so many hearts. “Who among us can say that? “He’d loved people despite the early trauma in his life. I love the idea of his DNA in the sculpture — touch him, hold him and actually be touching Ivan.”