Ivan the Gorilla

A story and a life that continues to touch and inspire so many.

March 16, 1995 marked the date that Ivan, an endangered western lowland gorilla, first set foot on real grass in almost 30 years.

In 1987, after becoming aware of the plight of this highly social animal, who had been confined alone to a 14' x 14' concrete cell for more than 27 years, PAWS began a campaign to free Ivan. It took more than seven years. Ivan, who had been imported to the US from then Zaire by owner of B&I Shopping Center in Tacoma in 1964, had not seen another gorilla since the death of his infant sister Burma in that same year.

A community rallied

Thousands of members of the Tacoma/Seattle community got involved to help make the campaign to free Ivan a success—they collected signatures for petitions calling for his release, donated money to PAWS for the placement of newspaper ads, and took part in protests and boycotts. They even helped PAWS to raise a $30,000 "offer" in exchange for Ivan's release to Woodland Park Zoo.

Two images of Ivan rally display materials - a banner and poster

PAWS members at one of many protests to free Ivan (L), and a poster for a rally (R).

Ivan, PAWS and the citizens of Tacoma/Seattle got a boost to their cause in 1991, when National Geographic Explorer aired a documentary entitled "The Urban Gorilla" that contrasted shots of a sad, lonely and listless Ivan with shots of Willie B., another lowland gorilla shown taking his first tentative steps outdoors in Zoo Atlanta's natural gorilla habitat after 27 years of his own solitary confinement. Ivan's story was covered across the nation, from People Magazine to the New York Times.

Victory at last

In 1995 our efforts finally paid off. Thanks to scientists from Woodland Park Zoo and the Gorilla Species Survival Plan, Ivan was eventually gifted to Woodland Park Zoo, who then agreed to permanently loan Ivan to Zoo Atlanta, the place best fit to care for him. 

Ivan the Gorilla outdoors at Zoo Atlanta

Ivan in Atlanta - content, confident and healthy.

Ivan was an intelligent, inspirational, and gentle giant who greatly enjoyed his life at Zoo Atlanta. He became one of the zoo's "star" attractions after successfully overcoming the emotional and physical damage caused by his years of confinement. Ivan delighted visitors to the zoo with his paternal antics and tendencies to cover his head with a burlap sack to express his disapproval of rain.

In August 2012, after 18 years at Zoo Atlanta, Ivan passed away quietly. Read a Seattle Times report published at the time of his death.

Ivan's case is a shining example of the amazing change a caring community can inspire. His story help us teach kids in our community that they truly can make a difference in the lives of others.