Meet Ivan

Ivan, Western Lowland Gorilla
Aug 20, 2012

Zoo Atlanta was honored to be the final home of Ivan the western lowland gorilla, the inspiration for the Newbery Award-winning book “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate, as well as the film of the same name. Ivan was a cherished member of the Zoo Atlanta population from 1994 until his passing on August 20, 2012, at the age of 50.

Every life at the Zoo is a story worth sharing, but Ivan’s story was once told so widely and passionately that it ignited a national movement that touched two coasts. From the jungles of Africa to the shores of the Pacific Northwest to The Ford African Rain Forest at Zoo Atlanta, his life is a symbol of the way animals shape our lives – and the power we have to shape theirs.

Ivan’s Life

  • Circa 1962: Ivan and a female infant are born in the wild in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In an era in which many zoos still acquire baby apes directly from the wild, the infants are captured for their market value.
  • 1964: Ivan and his companion are brought to the U.S. and sold by wildlife traders to the owners of the B&I department store in Tacoma, Wash. The female dies soon after their arrival, and he spends his early years as a pet in a human household.
  • 1967: Great apes make poor pets, and Ivan is no exception. Although only 5, he is already too large, strong and boisterous for life with a human family. As a solution, Ivan is moved to an indoor enclosure inside the B&I department store. He will not go outdoors again for nearly 30 years.
  • 1970s and 1980s: Ivan is the star attraction of the B&I store, and he becomes Tacoma’s most famous non-human resident. Over the next two decades, he is visited by thousands of friends and fans, an adoring public who may not realize at this time that Ivan’s lifestyle is utterly at odds with the physical, social and behavioral needs of his species. Meanwhile, across the U.S. in Atlanta, Ga., in 1988, another solitary gorilla, Zoo Atlanta’s Willie B., enters a naturalistic habitat for the first time after more than 25 years in a small indoor enclosure.
  • 1992: The B&I department store is facing bankruptcy, and finances aren’t its owners’ only woes. Riding on the cresting wave of a global push toward naturalistic settings for wild animals in captivity, Ivan’s friends and fans now recognize that a 30-year-old male gorilla has specific social and spatial needs – needs that aren’t being met within the confines of a glass-enclosed room.
  • 1994: Ivan’s solitary existence has by now provoked national outrage within the zoological and animal welfare communities, and in 1994, his owners donate him to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.
  • 1994: Back East, Willie B.’s high-profile turn from longtime loner to successful silverback has lent national credibility to the gorilla program at Zoo Atlanta, which has by now seen a succession of births. With the approval of the Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP), the Woodland Park Zoo sends Ivan to Atlanta on permanent loan in October 1994.
  • 1995: Ivan explores The Ford African Rain Forest at Zoo Atlanta in spring 1995 – the first time he has been outdoors in more than 27 years. Sunlight, trees, grass and fresh air are sensory enrichment he has not experienced since 1967.
  • 1995: There’s another new experience, too – girls! Ivan makes his debut with females Molly and Kuchi, and he later meets Shamba, Kashata and Kinyani. While he socializes well with his female companions, and is even observed mating with the flirtatious Kinyani, Ivan sires no offspring.
  • 2010: Ivan’s 16th anniversary in Atlanta is observed at Zoo Atlanta. He is photographed holding a sign reading, “Ivan ‘Hearts’ Atlanta,” and it’s obvious that Atlanta “hearts” him, too.
  • 2011: Ivan’s last “roommate,” Kinyani, leaves Zoo Atlanta for the Columbus Zoo – a departure Ivan hardly seems to notice. After more than 16 years in Atlanta, it’s apparent that while he has never overtly rejected the presence of other gorillas, his most lasting social relationships have always been with his keepers, with whom he has formed close personal bonds.

Ivan at Zoo Atlanta

In the mid-1990s, Zoo Atlanta was chosen as a home for Ivan, famous as “The Shopping Mall Gorilla” from Tacoma, Washington, for a number of reasons. Zoo Atlanta already had established leadership in the care and study of western lowland gorillas, and in particular, had already been successful in the socialization of another longtime solitary gorilla, the beloved late Willie B. Zoo Atlanta offered Ivan not only this legacy of leadership, but also a new home in the landmark Ford African Rain Forest, a series of naturalistic habitats where he would have the chance to explore the outdoors for the first time in more than 25 years. Zoo Atlanta also offered Ivan another vital opportunity – the chance to meet others of his own species – allowing him to spend the remainder of his life as a gorilla who lived in much the same way as gorillas do in the wild.

Ivan’s fans from the Pacific Northwest never forgot him. The Zoo still receives many letters and greetings about him and for him, and he remains one of the most asked-about individuals ever to live at Zoo Atlanta.

Ivan’s legacy is profound, lasting, and far-reaching. The 2012 publication of “The One and Only Ivan,” followed by the 2020 release of the film of the same name, have introduced new generations to his species and the conservation actions needed to preserve gorillas in the wild.

Zoo Atlanta’s leadership in the care and study of western gorillas

Zoo Atlanta is an internationally-renowned leader in the care and study of this critically endangered species, with a program that dates back more than 50 years.

  • The Zoo is home to one of North America’s largest populations of western lowland gorillas. As of 2020, 24 gorillas have been born at Zoo Atlanta since the opening of The Ford African Rain Forest in 1988. Notably, all of the gorillas born at Zoo Atlanta have been reared by their mothers or by a gorilla surrogate.
  • Zoo Atlanta has been a significant conservation partner of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International for over 20 years, providing headquarters space, information technology and financial support for the organization. Over the years, the Zoo has also provided the Fossey Fund with board leadership and program support, as well as shared scientific team members.
  • Research by Zoo Atlanta team members has influenced industry-wide improvements in the care of gorillas in zoos, as well as enhanced the world’s understanding of gorillas, with more than 100 published papers on maternal care, reproduction, social behavior, and cognition.
  • Zoo Atlanta is the headquarters of the Great Ape Heart Project, the world’s first effort to understand, diagnose, and treat cardiac disease across all four great ape taxa: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos.
  • Zoo Atlanta was an early leader in the housing of bachelor gorillas and is a leader in the emerging field of geriatric gorilla care.
  • The Zoo is a Platinum Supporter of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Ape Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), a collective effort to preserve wild ape populations and to increase and sustain financial support from zoos for their conservation.
  • Zoo Atlanta was a 2011 recipient of the distinguished Edward H. Bean Award for Significant Achievement from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for its long-term commitment to western lowland gorillas.


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