Four years after his death at the ripe old age of 50 as a resident of Zoo Atlanta, Ivan the gorilla is finally coming home to Tacoma.
It might seem odd that a western lowland gorilla captured as an infant by wildlife traders in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and sold to the owner of a circus-themed shopping center in Washington state in 1964 is returning to the town where he lived a strange and solitary existence for almost three decades.
But things are different this time around.
Ivan, memorialized as a 600-pound bronze sculpture using advance 3-D printing technology, will now live outdoors near the entrance of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma. Posthumously, he’ll enjoy fresh air, sweeping views of Commencement Bay and regular visits from his longtime admirers. He will be in nature, surrounded by trees and wildlife within one of the largest urban parks in the United States. And, in a sense, the naturalistic statue of the silverback really is Ivan — his ashes are mixed within the bronze, a statue fully embedded with gorilla DNA.
When the regionally renowned “the Shopping Mall Gorilla” was liberated from his indoor concrete enclosure at the B&I Circus Store — now known as the B&I Public Marketplace — and relocated to Zoo Atlanta in 1994, Ivan took with him a legion of fans. Longtime devotees of the ape would regularly fly to Atlanta to visit him in his new home and, if they couldn’t make the trip, dedicated Ivanites would send letters and gifts. From the sounds of it, Zoo Atlanta was almost overwhelmed by Ivan’s hardcore following back in the Pacific Northwest. After all, they had a much-beloved celebrity from the South Puget Sound on their hands.
Wrote Zoo Atlanta upon Ivan’s passing in August 2012:
We’d love him even if he weren’t one of our special senior gorillas, a member of an irreplaceable generation that now represents some of the world’s oldest living members of his species. We’d love him even if he weren’t one of our most famous residents. We’d love him even if he didn’t still attract scores of well wishes, greetings, questions and Facebook posts from hundreds of friends and fans who have never forgotten him. We’d love him anyway, because we’ve had the honor and the privilege of sharing 17 years of an extraordinary life.
Although Ivan left Tacoma in 1994, his legacy remained. In his absence, he achieved something of a folk hero status — only fitting for an indelible member of the community for 30 years. Finally freed from his improbable confines, he became a legend, an icon, a primate of utmost esteem, the subject of an award-winning children's book. It would seem that everyone living in western Washington from the 1960s through the early 1990s knew Ivan, even those who had never encountered the silverback in person at a shabby shopping center on South Tacoma Way.
The primate pride of the South Puget Sound
As a kid in the 1980s, I spent time at that shabby shopping center on South Tacoma Way.
I visited the B&I a small handful of occasions with my dad on weekends, never with my mother. It was one of those kinds of places — seedy, thrilling, mysterious, definitely no moms allowed. My childhood visits to the B&I can best be described as sort of semi-traumatic retail rite of passage. It was entirely new and exotic to me, the lovechild of a flea market mixed and the midway at the world’s saddest state fair. I remember water slides extending from the building’s front façade. I remember pinball machines and a carousel. I remember strange smells. I vaguely remember barnyard animals. ("The rabbit drove the fire truck and the chicken played baseball or tic-tac-toe," my father recently noted.) I remember never leaving without a couple packs of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards.
Toto, we’re not at Nordstrom anymore.
And I remember it well: a cement and steel cell smack dab in the middle of a rundown retail destination sporting a large arcade and an even larger wig store. Even then, the long-faded jungle murals painted onto the concrete walls seemed cruel, taunting.
Or maybe I did see Ivan at the B&I. But for one reason or another, I scrubbed him, but not his sad enclosure, from my childhood memories — an act of motivated forgetting, thought suppression. After all, it didn’t make sense to a zoo-savvy, animal-loving kid like myself why a gorilla would live in a place like the B&I. It didn't register. So I forgot.
Ivan’s early years at the B&I were decidedly less fraught.
After all, cultural attitudes toward keeping these majestic beasts in captivity were decidedly more relaxed in the 1950s and 1960s. A gorilla living in a cage in a department store was considered exciting, not depressing. Ivan, lovingly raised until the age of 5 by the family of B&I pet store proprietor Ruben Johnston before moving into a custom-built pen, was a bona fide animal celebrity.
If anything, Ivan gave Tacoma, always the underdog, something to gloat about if just for a while.
Seattle, Tacoma’s more sophisticated sister to the north, was also home to a western lowland gorilla at the time named Bobo. A huge tourist draw for Seattle, Bobo — like Ivan, he was also raised during his early years in a private home — lived comfortably in a zoo. Ivan, on the other hand, lived in a circus-themed department store with fairground rides and a menagerie that also included flamingos, a pair of chimpanzees and, at one point, a baby Indian elephant named Sammy. Ivan had the novelty factor going for him. He was a star.
Today, this all seems wrong and on several different levels. As Zoo Atlanta points out, Ivan’s living situation at the B&I was “utterly at odds with the physical, social and behavioral needs of his species.” But, again, it was a different era — an era when a retailer with a knack for razzle-dazzle promotion could place a gorilla in a barred enclosure and people would show up in droves to catch an glimpse.
'The biggest little store in the world'
Opened in 1946 as a modest hardware store just north of Fort Lewis on Old Highway 99, the B&I, in its early years, was co-owned by M.L. Bradshaw and E.L. "Earl" Irwin — the “B” and the “I.” It was under Irwin — huckster, showman and fancier of exotic animals — that the property morphed into a sprawling variety store —the "Biggest Little Store in the World" — where amusement park atmospherics ruled supreme. It all started with over-the-top Christmas light displays and sidewalk sales. Then came the carousel ride and arcade games. Finally, came the animals, which were owned by Irwin and cared for by a dedicated staff of B&I employees.
By the time Ivan arrived on the scene (Burma, a second female gorilla procured by Irvin died in infancy) in 1967, the B&I was already a regional destination in full-on big top mode. Irwin rechristened it as the World Famous B&I Circus Store.
Ivan, whose day-to-day routine consisted of finger painting, watching television, playing with a tire and interacting with his keepers, served as the bizarre circus-store's marquee attraction.
In addition to ripping pages out of phone books, one of Ivan's favorite ways to pass the time was to spook store patrons. Without warning, he'd approach the thick glass viewing walls of his enclosure and bang on them, causing shoppers to recoil in shock. And then Ivan would laugh and laugh. To him, it was a game to break the tedium.
Scared you, didn’t I?
"He was like a kid, always watching people. He loved scaring them,” Earl Irwin's son, Ron, told the Tacoma News Tribune. “But there was something more. When you looked in his eyes, he was looking back at you. He understood what was going on.”
Although the novelty of a shopping mall gorilla eventually wore off, Ivan stayed put. Old-timers continued to visit Ivan but he failed to capture a new generation of fans. Diehard nostalgics who grew up visiting Ivan were made uneasy by the endangered species-confined-to-a-five-and-dime scenario.
Starting in the mid-1980s, activist groups including the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) began campaigning for Ivan to be transferred to a zoo, where he would be allowed to venture outdoors and interact with other gorillas. "Free Ivan" petitions circulated around the city. The financially struggling B&I was boycotted and protested. Even Ivan’s most loyal fans stayed away from the quirky and once-cherished Tacoma landmark. The geriatric gorilla's presence was just too painful for some.
A Northwest icon heads to the Southeast
In the early 1990s, Ivan's fate began to shift.
A National Geographic documentary and a slew of sympathetic magazine profiles introduced Ivan to a national audience. There were even rumors that Ivan would be retired to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. The Irvin family was reluctant to part with him largely out of fear that a dramatic relocation would be too stressful for the 30-something gorilla to bear. In 1993, the embattled owners of the B&I filed for bankruptcy. It was both the Chapter 11 proceedings — not to mention the tireless campaigning by activists — that ultimately precipitated Ivan’s transfer to a zoo.
When Ivan, pictured here with Zoo Atlanta 'roommate' Kinyani in 2011, died at the age of 50, he was one of the longest-surviving captive gorillas in history. (Photo: girlzilla09/flickr)
In 1994, after 28 years of living alone in a cramped enclosure, Ivan was gifted to Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. Later that year, he made the cross-country move to Zoo Atlanta, a facility already home to a celebrity silverback named Willie B, on permanent loan. At the time, the Woodland Park Zoo's acclaimed gorilla exhibit was at full capacity and, logistically, the out of state move made sense.
Ivan adjusted quickly to his new life in Atlanta. Here, he won over an adoring new base of Ivanites and enjoyed spacious living conditions that much more closely resembled the native habitat of his species. In this new environment, he ventured outside for the first time in nearly three decades and was socialized with the zoo’s other resident gorillas including eligible females. (He mated but never sired offspring).
While Ivan got along with the other gorillas at Zoo Atlanta, he ultimately failed to establish close bonds with them. At the end of the day, Ivan preferred the company of humans, not surprising considering he had spent most of his life in no contact with other gorillas and was essentially raised, up until the age of 5, as a diaper-wearing tot in a suburban household.
A posthumous homecoming
Today, aside from critters found in the long-running pet store, there are no animals to be found at the B&I. Considered by some locals as a historical relic and dismissed by others as a low-traffic ghost mall, it remains open to the rim-installing, teriyaki-scarfing, knock-off DVD-buying general public. The arcade and carousel are still there and, apparently, the food vendors are outstanding.
In 2007, the Tacoma News Tribune praised the B&I in its gorilla-free 21st century iteration as being a haven for fledgling small business owners and called it "as diverse a shopping center as it gets." As one Foursquare user noted, it’s the “only place in Tacoma where you can buy a burrito, car speakers, puppies and a wig at the same time.”
Some might argue that Ivan, in larger-than-life sculptural form, belongs at the B&I. However, just as it was no place for a real gorilla, it is no place for a memorialized gorilla.
The descendants of Earl Irwin agree. And so, they choose Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, which accepted the magnificent Ivan sculpture as a gift.
“It’s not only a statue, it’s a cause,” Earl Borgert, Irwin’s grandson, told the the News Tribune of the 6-foot-tall sculpture, which depicts Ivan leaning onto a log with one hand and gently cradling a magnolia blossom in the other. “I believe all our lives have a purpose, and Ivan’s life may have been to speak about his species," says Borgert.
Ivan, on the right, is pictured here in 1964 with his female companion, Burma, who also purchased by E.L. Irwin from an exotic animal broker. Burma died not too long after her arrival in Washington. (Photo: Tacoma Public Library)
Eventually, the sculpture will be surrounded by a series of interpretive panels that share Ivan’s unique story while spotlighting the challenges faced by his critically endangered kin in the wild including poaching and habitat loss. An estimated 125,000 western lowland gorillas remain in Western equatorial Africa according to a Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium press release. It should be pointed out that Metro Parks Tacoma-operated Point Defiance Zoo, most well known for its conservation work with red wolves and for being home to the late, great E.T., doesn't have a gorilla program of its own.
“Its location outside one of the Northwest’s premier zoos, a place dedicated to the care and conservation of endangered species, reminds us all of the need to cherish the animals that inhabit the earth with us," remarks Eric Hanberg, president of the Metro Parks Tacoma Board of Commissioners.
A local legend, digitally replicated and cast in bronze
The decision by renowned local artist Douglas Granum to create a tribute that portrays Ivan striking a docile and decidedly un-ape-like pose speaks to the silverback’s gentle and inquisitive nature. In fact, Granum based the statue on a 1994 News Tribune photograph taking shortly after Ivan was relocated to Atlanta.
Larry Johnston, Ivan’s “human brother” who helped to raise the infant gorilla during the pre-B&I years, explains in a video produced by the News Tribune: “Ivan in all of his rambunctiousness, in all of his high energy, never destroyed plants. There was some sort of a kindred connection that it was a thing of nature that he just didn’t violate. He very much appreciated the beauty and simplicity of a flower.”
You can watch a young Ivan interact with nature (and everything else around him) in the video below.
The digitally molded sculpture itself, conceived by Granum and produced by Portland-based Form 3D Foundry, is the result of a massive 3-D printer slowly churning out 110 individual pieces of pulverized acrylic — Ivan's body parts, essentially. Following the printing process, the parts were assembled and cast in bronze by Tacoma-based foundry, Two Ravens Studio.
Appropriately, Ivan played a significant role in the childhood of Form 3D Foundry’s president and CEO, Rob Arps. A native of the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood, Arps’ parents actually worked at the B&I when he was kid. “There are a myriad of renderings of great apes from King Kong to beloved Ivan, and I wanted something that was kind and beautiful and really showed his spirit,” he told the News Tribune back in May when the sculpture was still in progress.
Arps goes on to note that the digital sculpting and printing process is faster, more efficient and ultimately less expensive than traditional sculpting methods all while maintaining a high level of artistic detail and control.
“I’m able to do things I never could have done before. We’re all in a choreographic mode to make this thing occur. When sculpting with clay, the artist is limited in what kind of changes can be made. With digital sculpting, changes can be made without affecting the overall project,” explained Arps. “We can solve a series of problems very quickly, where before it would have taken months.”
To foot the bill for the sculpture, donations were solicited by the Beloved Ivan Project, a nonprofit organization established to both honor Ivan and to “increase awareness and inspire action to preserve the habitat for Western lowland gorillas in the Congo, Africa.” In total, the group raised more than $247,000 for the project, most of it coming from foundations.
Granum, who worked closely with the Irwin family to render a loving and realistic tribute to a "living being who shared attributes with us all," describes the process as “…not work; it was truly a labor of love.”
He tells Seattle NBC affiliate King 5 News: “In each crucible of bronze that we poured and there are about 35 in all, we put a portion of Ivan's ashes in there, so the whole sculpture has his DNA."
The official unveiling ceremony of Point Defiance Park's newest sculpture brought together numerous important figures in Ivan’s life earlier this week: members of the Irwin family, an emotional Larry Johnston and primate specialists from Zoo Atlanta who cared for the senior silverback during his final years.
Jodi Carrigan, assistant curator of primates at Zoo Atlanta, remembers Ivan as being a “unique and special gorilla with a strong and distinctive personality.”
“His legacy is tremendous, and it’s a legacy that will always live to benefit his species.”
The next time I'm back home in Tacoma, I think I'll pay Ivan a visit. I'm most certain I'll remember him this time.
B&I exterior photo: Jim Belford/flickr
Ivan 1970s image: Tacoma Public Library