The silverback of South Tacoma

Remembering Ivan the Gorilla

By Joshua Swainston on June 16, 2011

John Clark, a long-time Tacoma resident, reminices ...

"My parents took all five of us kids, and usually a kid neighbor or two, over to the B&I on Saturdays pretty frequently. It was always a big event for us because it involved corn dogs, cotton candy, a merry-go-round, the penny arcade, shoes, live pets and the main attraction - Ivan the Gorilla. The store used to do shows with Ivan and his trainer, but I think the trainer was outside of the cage most the time. Older folks would say to us, ‘Did you go and watch Ivan play today?' or ‘Did Ivan do tricks for you?'

"Ivan was huge, especially to a little kid," Clark continues. "One of our worst fears was that Ivan would reach through the bars of his bright red circus wagon and pull us in. Someone told us, ‘He'll grab your corn dog right out of your hands if you're not careful.'"

In 1964 Earl Irwin, then owner of the B&I, brought two gorillas from the Congo to his famed Circus Store. Burma, the female of the pair died shortly after coming to the States, leaving Ivan to the burden of being a lonesome solitary spectacle. At the time, the B&I also boasted a myriad of tropical birds as well as April and Murphy, two chimpanzees who gained minor fame in publicity photo shoots. The games, rides and animal attractions made the Circus Store a family destination. For 30 years Ivan the Gorilla headlined this spectacle, fascinating locals and awing tourists, and ultimately became a part of Tacoma's history. 

The mall gorilla

Most people who remember Ivan talk of him listlessly watching a black-and-white TV or finger painting. Some would say he liked the attention he got from the shoppers. Ivan was a destination. People came from all over the state just to see the mall gorilla.

"He played to the public," says Danny Schatz, a B&I employee for over 20 years and current maintenance man. "He was smarter than people thought he was." 

Originally, Ivan stayed in a barred enclosure. Later, a viewing area and an outdoor section were constructed to showcase the gorilla further. According to Schatz, the entire enclosure was heated using a boiler system that ran through the flooring. The outside area had a waterfall and the inside had a TV.

"They took real good care of him," Schatz insists. "Ivan even had dental work when he needed it." 

Schatz says a truck arrived every week with fresh vegetables. "He liked sweet potatoes, milk and eggs."

Pat Grace, a regular patron of the B&I, also remembers Ivan.

"I had gone in there for some hardware, in the back door where his cage was.  There were six or eight folks gathered around. Ivan was over there minding his own business playing with his tire or something," says Grace. "He was just sitting there. All of a sudden he was across the cage - he slapped the glass and had people scattering. He had people every which way. It was like it amused him. He wasn't doing all that posturing that you see with apes on TV. He just did it for reaction. If you put a human emotion to it, it would be like he was happy to see the people scatter like cockroaches."

These days Ivan's old enclosure serves as storage for excess signage, holiday displays and commercial-strength custodial equipment. The glass wall of the indoor viewing area is covered in ancient faded newsprint chronicling the revelry and exhibition of the gorilla. 

After Ivan left - eventually landing across the country in Atlanta - the B&I slowly found its way into obscurity. "I'm sure it slowed down the pace of the customers," comments Schatz. 

Set my primates free

In 1994 animal rights efforts to have Ivan moved to a more appropriate location came to a head. Somehow a rumor that Michael Jackson was involved surfaced and is strangely still part of the uninformed legend. In reality, a group of activists led by PAWS, an animal rights organization, and supported by Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo and Zoo Atlanta worked to get Ivan into a more natural habitat.

Gigi Allianic, public relations manager for Woodland Park Zoo, describes the operation, saying Woodland Park Zoo's former director, Dave Towne, partnered with PAWS's Mitchell Fox and Zoo Atlanta's Dr. Terry Maple to take up the cause of "moving Ivan out of the B&I to socialize him with other gorillas and live in a naturalistic exhibit for the remainder of his life."

According to the PAWS website, the coalition of members pushing to transfer Ivan even tried to buy him from the B&I, offering $30,000. It took several years and a lot of press, including pieces in Time, People and National Geographic, before the B&I relinquished Ivan the Gorilla. Eventually, in 1995, Constance Irwin, wife of the late Earl Irwin, gifted Ivan to the Woodland Park Zoo.

Allianic expounds on the scope of the operation, "Woodland Park Zoo's senior veterinarian, Dr. Janis, supervised a 19-person team of veterinary, medical and dental specialists that conducted a battery of tests on Ivan's medical condition; she also led the team for his pre-shipment examination and traveled with the gorilla to Zoo Atlanta."

To this day, many Tacoma locals wonder why Ivan couldn't have been kept closer to home. Though Point Defiance Zoo doesn‘t have the resources or habitat for the great ape, Woodland Park Zoo has a stunning and beautiful gorilla exhibit. 

"At the time of Ivan's transfer, Woodland Park Zoo was at full capacity with two silverbacks (adult males) living in separate gorilla exhibits," notes Allianic. Because of this the Seattle zoo could not accommodate an additional silverback. "Consequently, the Gorilla Species Survival Plan recommended Zoo Atlanta as a suitable facility," she adds.

Divining the beast

"When I was young we did a lot of our shopping at the B&I. We'd ride the carousel and see Ivan. It was a big treat for my sister and myself," recalls Teresa Carol, a Tacoma-based psychic consultant. 

Years later, Carol was asked to visit with Ivan once again, when she was given the opportunity to facilitate the gorilla's palm reading.

"They were getting ready to transfer him to Zoo Atlanta. They were trying to maximize the publicity," remembers Carol. "They took him out to check him up and clean his teeth and someone took a palm print. I took the print and read his palm with him in the background."

A satirical article written in a 1994 issue of the News Tribune details the reading.  The article notes, with undercutting jest, that Carol deduced that Ivan was born outside the country. The article also mentions that "Ivan's large thumb and short fingers show he's dominate and aggressive. He also has lots of willpower."

The second half of the article is comprised of bullet points of key premonitions - some of which have come to fruition. Most of these related to Ivan's love life,  such as, "He'll fall for someone outside of the group he hangs with at first," and "It will take 18 months for Ivan to feel at home with other gorillas."

Carol also claims she foresaw that Ivan would live another two decades - a bullet point she says the Tribune mistakenly misprinted as only seven years. It has been 16 years and change since the reading took place.

The gorilla went down to Georgia

After nearly 30 years of solitary confinement, Ivan was finally able to mingle with his own kind at Zoo Atlanta. But after three decades of zero interaction with other gorillas, he didn't have much social facility. Think of that homeschooled kid who came to high school in senior year and always ate lunch by himself. Ivan was only a black trench coat and a Dungeon Master's Guide short of being a cliché. 

Keisha Hines, director of public relations at Zoo Atlanta, details the process. "He was initially introduced to two females. They lived next door to him for the majority of each day and overnight," she says. "Ivan's reactions ranged from ambivalent to annoyed once introduced to the girls."

This first exposure to the opposite sex did not produce the results caretakers had hoped for. After the first set of females, a second set of two females were presented. This meeting led to mixed results. 

"(Ivan) also did not seem to assert himself with the girls, bearing the typical macho attitude. So, ultimately, I don't think they respected him and having the two adult females may have been overwhelming for him," explains Hines. 

Ivan eventually connected with one of the female gorillas, Kinyani, and rejected the other, Shamba. Ivan disliked Shamba so much that "... he often would throw hay and bedding at her as she passed by him," remembers Hines.

There were other experiments to socialize Ivan, but to no avail. To this day Kinyani remains as Ivan's sole regular companion as well as his only sexual partner.

Hines described the early stages of the two gorillas' relationship. "(Kinyani's) advances did lead to a great deal of regular wrestling and play behavior typical of gorillas, and we felt he had at least, after all this time, found a buddy," she recalls. "The wrestling and contact behavior may have led to the one incidence of mating that was reported. It was a singular event, and gorillas usually mate frequently for two or three days. We hoped that eventually he would get the idea, as Kinyani continued to display an interest for several years."

Ivan never fully assimilated into the gorilla lifestyle. He never sired any offspring. Ivan interacts better with his handlers than with the other gorillas at the park. Ivan still occasionally paints, and these painting sometimes go to auction.

"Ivan is now a very geriatric male, but is in good health for his age," Hines poignantly observes of the gorilla in his golden years. "He is not very active, but shows a lot of interest in enrichment toys and other items given out by the keepers. He likes to sleep late and only goes out on exhibit if the weather is ideal; he enjoys lying in the sun."

Everyone is online these days

On a Facebook fan site, memories of Ivan are shared openly, proving that the gorilla still holds a piece of Tacoma's heart. The site is adamantly opposed to the B&I, but maintains that Ivan was and is a part of Tacoma.

John Fox writes, "I remember when my brother and I were kids, we would stand at the window into your cage and hit the glass and agitate you. Then you would scare the holy crap out of us when you'd throw those semi-truck tires at the window on a ‘frozen rope.' You were great and I miss you."

In another post from the site, Anna Borst offers, "Ivan, my grandpa would take me to visit you at the B&I a couple times a week in the early '80s. I would squish between the wooden rail and the glass and put my hands on the glass. You always came as close as you could and we would watch each other for what seemed like an eternity. I used to beg my grandpa to let me go in and visit you because you were sad."

Although Ivan no longer physically resides in the South Sound, his impact as a cultural icon remains. Those who got a chance to see Ivan during the B&I's heyday help to pass on the lore. The mall gorilla is long gone, but far from forgotten.