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 the early 1960’s Ivan and a female gorilla Burma, were captured and taken from their native homeland. In the process, their parents were likely killed, an occurrence that is still unfortunately 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 he would euthanize the gorillas come morning if he could not sell them. 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. Lost in transit for nearly eight weeks, Ivan finally arrived at the Chicago airport. Burma’s trip had far fewer problems as she arrived on time at SeaTac. Soon after Burma’s arrival, she became very sick and died; the cause of death believed to be pneumonia.
For Ivan, the future was better. He lived with a local family the Johnstons, 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, Larry. Ivan grew too large and uncontrollable for a human home. 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.
The B&I Circus Store
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. A customized 30-foot trailer featuring unbreakable glass, a kitchen, his TV and a living area had become Ivan’s new home.
Years later Ivan continued to grow, therefore the B&I constructed a new larger compound that incorporated his customized trailer as his sleeping quarters. 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. Once tiring of games with his handlers, he would wander back out to see the people that had been waiting patiently to 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. An attorney for the pop icon Michael Jackson called on his behalf to inquire about caring for Ivan, with the promise that “he would build the best gorilla compound on Earth”. Unfortunately, after two years Mr. Jackson could not procure building permits for the compound that he had envisioned and his dream for Ivan died. Due to international attention, Michael Jackson brought to Ivan’s plight, suddenly offers came to take care of Ivan from many experienced zoos. The first choice being Zoo Atlanta, with the foremost experience. Here, Ivan had 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, an exam was performed to discover why he was losing weight. Grievously he failed to wake up from the exam. 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.