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Ivan the Gorilla

Unless you grew up in western Washington State, as I did, Ivan the Gorilla may not have been a known entity to you—or, if he was—he was an absent ape who lived and died more or less anonymously.

Not as well known as Penny Patterson’s Koko, Ivan was as well-loved and as deeply cared about by those of us who met him as an infant and looked in on him as an adult before he finally was “set free” (a relative term) in an Atlanta zoo in an effort to create fond bonds with a female ape and spread his genes to another generation of rare, captive western lowland gorillas—significantly freer and decidedly happier than he had been for most of his life.

Ivan was raised like a “little brother” by a Pacific Northwest family. He was a fixture at the B&I Shopping Center for decades after he became too big and boisterous to continue as a family member. I can’t even imagine what the transition from family member to pet shop exhibit must have done to him mentally and emotionally.

Eventually—long overdue—a larger enclosure was created for Ivan at the shopping center. But it, too, was dark, dull, and decidedly less-appealing than the earliest part of his life had been. By this time he was off-limits to human contact. He had become sullen and very likely depressed. Putting an intelligent being behind bars tends to do that.

By the time Ivan was placed in the larger enclosure, I had grown up and landed a job at the B&I Pet Store. The year was 1987. I often spent break time wandering over to his enclosure to “talk gorilla” to him through a large plexi-glass window. I would bob a closed fist in imitation of the “ape talk” I’d witnessed in documentaries about the great apes. He took notice and moved closer.

It was easy to tell his mood on any given day. Some days he was morose. On other days, he was restless and angry; he’d rush the window in a display that told me, “Get away! Not today!” There were times when he was amenable and cuddled close to the window, wondering if I’d ever get any closer.

Ivan’s keeper, a compassionate young lady, one day invited me “backstage”, since she had been watching the respect and affection I’d shown Ivan over time.

I followed her to the open bars from where she fed and spoke to Ivan. He came over. We were literally no more than one of his arm lengths away from each other. I could feel his presence in an intense, powerful way. The keeper let me hand him a banana. He took is gently, withdrew it through the bars, and ate it.

I confessed to her, “I feel sorry for him.” She said, “I do, too. It’s all he has ever known, though, so maybe it isn’t as awful as it seems.”

But we were both pretty sure it was. Although lots of things were tried to make his life happier—indestructible toys among them—he just wasn’t a happy camper.

In 1994, Ivan was relocated to the Atlanta Zoo. His keeper, of course, went with him for a time to be sure he settled in well.

Although Ivan learned to live peacefully with other gorillas and even coupled with one of the females, he never did sire offspring. His lasting relationships were always with the humans who took him in as an infant and with the human caretakers whose tireless efforts made his life bearable, although in no way ideal.

I loved Ivan. I always will. He will be in my heart forever and I hope I get to meet him across Rainbow Bridge someday where iron bars will no longer separate us from the hug I have always craved from him.

 

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