Ivan’s story started in the central African country of Zaire, formally known as the Belgium Congo. Ivan, a silverback western lowland gorilla, lived in the valleys of the rainforest of that area. In 1964 Ivan and his sister, later to be named Burma, were captured and in the process their parents were likely killed, an occurrence that is still, happening today.
Ivan and Burma’s situation came to the attention of an exotic animal broker in Africa. In an attempt to sell these two baby gorillas, one of the phone calls he made was to the owner of the B&I, in Tacoma, Washington, my father Earl Irwin .
The B&I had a history of owning many different animals over the years which included lions, bears, seals, elephants, chimpanzees, leopards and other animals, in effect a small zoo which was common at that time. The broker told Mr. Irwin if he would not agree to take these two gorillas, they would both have to be euthanized in the morning. Thinking this was the only option for the two infant gorillas, Mr. Irwin very reluctantly agreed to take them. With that agreement Ivan and Burma’s journey to Tacoma began.
Ivan in South Puget Sound
Ivan and Burma reached Tacoma in different ways. Ivan was lost for 8 weeks in transit and was finally located at Chicago’s airport. Burma’s trip had far less problems as she arrived on time at SeaTac. Soon after Burma’s arrival, she became very sick and died; the cause of death was believed to have been pneumonia.
For Ivan the future was better. He lived with a local family who owned the pet shop at the B&I. He spent the first three and a half years with the family and with Ivan’s best friend, their son. Ivan grew too large and uncontrollable for a human home. In fact, he would swing from the light fixtures, climb the curtains and surely damaged the home. It was time to find another home for Ivan, but how? No one had ever done this before.
Mr. Irwin contacted two zoos that had gorillas and asked them for help with the process of caging a gorilla that has lived most of his life in a normal human house. The understanding then was that gorillas were vicious animals that would kill you if they had the chance. “Remember King Kong” cautioned a staff member from one of the zoos. Ivan was placed in a 30-foot trailer with bars, unbreakable glass, a kitchen, his TV and his living area.
After several more years Ivan grew beyond a comfortable size for his sleeping trailer, so a new much larger house was built, which incorporated his sleeping trailer familiar to him. There was an outdoor living space for Ivan to sit in the sun and feel the fresh air, a waterfall with a pond, climbing bars, tires, rope nest, a huge pile of straw and every kind of toy that would last two or more days.
If Ivan didn’t want to be in the viewing cage he could at anytime go to his trailer in the back and play with one of the four handlers that took care of him. He always had a full-time handler. They enjoyed his painting, playing games, reading to him, playing tug of war, all to keep his mind active. After he tired of that he would wander back out to see the people who had been waiting patiently so they could see the one and only Ivan!
In the mid-Seventies the attitudes of the country changed regarding animals in captivity. In response to the change, the B&I found new homes for most animals by 1980, except Ivan.
Unfortunately, zoos did not want an older, solitary gorilla.
Ivan becomes nationally known
The day that changed everything for Ivan, was the day when the attorney for the pop icon Michael Jackson called to say that Mr. Jackson had wanted to take care of Ivan, with the promise that “he would build the best gorilla compound on Earth”. Unfortunately after two years Mr. Jackson was not allowed a building permit for the compound that he had envisioned and his dream for Ivan died. Due to the international attention Michael Jackson brought to Ivan’s plight, suddenly offers came to take care of Ivan from many experienced zoos. The Zoo Atlanta was the first choice and Ivan joined other gorillas in an open air penned area after a period of adjustment.
Ivan moves across the country to Atlanta, Georgia
In the spring of 1995, Ivan arrived in Atlanta and walked freely in a wide field area with other gorillas.
Though he now lived with other gorillas–a first since his capture in 1964—he seemed to prefer the company of humans. By most indications, Ivan was happy at his new home in Atlanta, and he gained again many fans and friends in the South.
Jody Carrigan, Ivan’s keeper at Zoo Atlanta remarked:
“No matter where he (Ivan) was, he enjoyed people watching and oddly enough when Ivan spent the day in our exhibit that had only glass separating him from the public, very similarly to the B&I, you would always find him there, in front of the glass watching all of the visitors. His love of people who came to see him never went away, even in Atlanta.”
On Tuesday, August 20, 2012, Ivan was surgically assessed to discover why he was losing weight. Grievously he failed to survive the surgery. He was 50 years old and etched his name in history as one of the longest-lived gorillas in captivity.
Zoo Atlanta held a memorial service attended by hundreds. Still people send letters to Zoo Atlanta about Ivan and the joy he brought them.
 Ron Irwin was a teenager when his father Earl Irwin answered the call to acquire two baby gorillas, to prevent their being euthanized.