Meet Ivan

Western Lowland Gorilla
Aug 20, 2012

The Zoo Atlanta family was saddened by the passing of Ivan the western lowland gorilla, 50 years old and a cherished member of our collection since 1994.

Every life at the Zoo is a story worth sharing, but his 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 has been a symbol of the way animals shape our lives – and the power we have to shape theirs.

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 18 years of an extraordinary life.

1960s: Infancy in Africa and a Trans-Atlantic Journey

  • 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-1994: The “Shopping Mall Gorilla”

  • 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.

1995-2011: Sun, space and ladies

  • 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.

 “Dear Zoo Atlanta …”

Ivan’s fans from the Pacific Northwest have never forgotten the “Shopping Mall Gorilla.” 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. In 2012, “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate was published to critical acclaim, including the 2013 Newbery Medal. In 2017, Atlanta’s own Synchronicity theater performed a stage version of Ivan’s story. His legacy continues in the hearts and minds of countless friends and fans, especially school children, who are now encouraged to learn more about western lowland gorillas and the conservation of their species because of the amazing life of this extraordinary individual.

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl