Remembering Ivan

News of Ivan the gorilla’s death in August blanketed the animal community with sadness. At PAWS, our hearts are especially heavy. Twenty five years ago, staff and volunteers at PAWS began what would turn out to be a long and hard fight to free the mighty Ivan.

Ivan’s sad reality began in 1964 when he and his sister Burma, both only two years old, were captured by wildlife traders in the Congo and sold to a department store owner in the United States. Burma died soon after they were imported. A sad fate for Burma, but a far darker future lay ahead for her brother. Ivan was soon locked up in a concrete cell at the B & I Shopping Center in Tacoma. There, Ivan spent the next 27 years in isolation. For nearly three decades, Ivan existed only as a sideshow for curious shoppers, with no exercise, companionship or proper medical attention.

Lisa Wathne, a former PAWS staff member, was shocked at what she found on her first trip to the shopping center.

“The sadness and boredom in Ivan’s demeanor were palpable,” she recalls.

In 1987, a campaign was launched to free Ivan from his 14' x 14' prison cell, with PAWS mobilizing thousands of concerned citizens across western Washington. For eight years, they worked tirelessly by petitioning, boycotting, and demonstrating against this tragic imprisonment. At one point, PAWS even raised funds to offer the store owner in exchange for Ivan’s release to the Woodland Park Zoo.

“The Ivan campaign was a remarkable example of how the plight of an individual animal can touch people deeply and inspire them to take action,” says Wathne.

Former PAWS Board Member Claudine Erlandson also recalls how PAWS led the drive to help Ivan.

“It was at PAWS that I learned of the cruelty in exploiting exotic animals in entertainment. Seeing Ivan in his dark dungeon was such a perfect example. I was so thankful for PAWS’ campaign to free him.”

Victory came for Ivan and his human supporters in 1995 when he was given to the Woodland Park Zoo, who permanently loaned him to Zoo Atlanta. Then, for the first time since his capture almost 30 years before, Ivan was allowed to feel the warmth of the sunshine above his head and the softness of grass below his feet. For the next 17 years, Ivan enjoyed an enriching environment, variety in nutritional meals, and gorilla-gorilla interaction.

Earlier this year, however, caretakers at Zoo Atlanta noticed Ivan was losing weight and becoming lethargic. Although Ivan had occasionally interacted with the other gorillas at his Atlanta home, he was never able to fully overcome the emotional damage he sustained from 27 years in isolation. Instead, Ivan preferred the human companionship of his zookeepers and lived apart from the other gorillas during his last year. Then, while being examined under anesthesia, Ivan died.

While we mourn the passing of Ivan, we should also remember the spirit and dedication of the animal activists in our community who worked relentlessly to give Ivan a better life. Ivan’s story is one of tragic confinement, but it also reflects the determination of those who cared.

Rest in peace, dear Ivan.

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