Although Ivan spent his life inside contained areas, he helped visitors understand the unique features and the characteristics of gorillas in the wild. This section presents fundamental information about gorillas as a species and specifically about Western lowland gorillas which Ivan was. The information is taken from a document prepared in 2009, the Year of the Gorilla [1].

While gorillas have been portrayed in film and cartoons as aggressive and threatening creatures, they are not. They are naturally gentle and plant eating. They demonstrate intimidating tactics to protect their families.

Gorillas belong to the great ape family including also chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans.

Amazingly great apes can use tools, solve problems, recognize themselves in a mirror, express a full range of emotions and form alliances to benefit their well-being.
Gorillas are the largest of the primate animals. They may grow to the size of over 400 pounds and more than five feet tall. They are family oriented and the males protect their families from harm.

Not all gorillas are alike.

Ivan was a Western lowland gorilla. The other Western lowland gorillas are the Cross River gorillas, practically extinct now. Other classifications of gorillas are Eastern gorillas and Mountain gorillas. They all live in different parts of Africa.

In 2007 only 30,000, reduced from hundreds of thousands previously, of Ivan’s gorilla type were believed to be living in the wild. Most likely many less now.

Western lowland gorillas have short fur and brown hair on top of their heads, as did Ivan. His cousin the Eastern lowland gorilla sports silky long blue-black fur.

Like people, gorillas use facial expressions to communicate with their own species. Sometimes people can exchange expression through making faces with gorillas. Like people, gorillas can use different sounds to communicate between themselves. Each sound – barks, purrs, coughs, grumbles, etc.- means something different. However, gorillas generally are very quiet animals. When happy a gorilla purrs almost like a cat. A bark or a cough may express being upset. High pitch yells may mean anger, fright, or pain. How much of human communication mimics gorilla communication?

Gorillas are endangered in the wild

Gorillas in the wild are threatened by several major factors: For the native population and elsewhere in the world, gorilla meat is considered a delicacy. Poachers kill the parents for “bush meat” and may sell their children as pets.

On 12 September 2007, Western gorillas – the only species seen in zoos – were re-classified from “Endangered” to “Critically Endangered” by The World Conservation Union (IUCN). Only a decade ago scientists estimated there were more than 100,000 Western gorillas in Africa, but threats from the bushmeat crisis (illegal, unsustainable hunting of wild animals) and Ebola virus have wiped out so many gorillas that current estimates are closer to 30,000. As population grows and the formerly distant forests are encroached upon by civilization, logging, mining or fires, the gorilla habitat is diminished leading to less breeding opportunities, reduced food, and increased conflicts.

Close contact with humans endangers gorillas who are susceptible to human diseases. Many gorillas have died of Ebola contracted from close contact with humans. Other diseases are transmitted as well to gorillas.
Snares set for animals in general endanger gorillas of loss of limb and are more predatory than their few natural wild animal enemies who are few.
Finally human imprint of mining reduces forestation for gorillas and introduces human disease potential. Rainforests of central Africa harbor gorilla habitats and an ore called coltan–a vital element in electronic products. Almost all electronic devises use coltan. Mining this essential product destroys habitats for many endangered animal species.

Ivan’s world in captivity

Coming to the United States as an infant (See Ivan’s story), Ivan lived with a local family who owned the pet shop at the B&I store in Tacoma, Washington. 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.

The understanding then was that gorillas were vicious animals that would kill you if they had the chance. 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 trailer, so a new much larger compound was built, which incorporated his trailer. 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.

When Ivan was transferred to Zoo Atlanta, where he lived for another 18 years, he was introduced to a large, outdoor, naturalistic habitat, in addition to indoor living areas, and the chance to socialize with other gorillas. Ivan never mated but he had female gorilla friends.

Even in Atlanta, Ivan was drawn to people. He developed a wide following and enjoyed sitting by the glass watching zoo visitors, watching him. More about Ivan at

Ivan’s world ~ for more information check out these links below:

Threats to Gorillas (WWF):

Wild Animals Do Not Makes Good Pets (AZA):


[1] Data taken from a publication by: The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums joined the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and the international Zoo Educators Association to create a gorilla manual for conservation information and activities.
The international contributors are many. ISSN: 1662-7733