On March 4, 1967, the gorilla Ivan (1962-2012) moves into a newly constructed cage at the B&I Circus Store in the Lakewood area of Pierce County south of Tacoma. Ivan was captured in Africa and brought to Tacoma in 1964. Upon his arrival, Ivan was put into the care of B&I pet shop manager Ruben Johnston (1923-1998) and his family. Ivan has outgrown his human home and experts advise that his needs would be better served in a cage. The new $60,000 cage at the B&I features amenities including a kitchen, a television, and a swinging bar. Ivan will live caged at the B&I store for the next 27 years. After animal-rights groups campaign for a move, in October 1994 he will be sent to Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, where he will live the final 18 years of his life in a more natural habitat.
Ivan the Silverback Gorilla
Silverback gorillas born in the western lowlands of Africa in the 1960s lived in heavy swamp forests. Gorillas historically were portrayed as aggressive and vicious killers. This portrayal was far from the truth. They are gentle, shy, plant-eating, social animals who would not attack humans unless provoked. They walk on their knuckles with their huge arms providing balance to support their large frames. Weight and size vary between females and males. Gorillas are born and raised in groups known as troops, and as males grow older and reach maturity, they develop distinctive silver hairs on their backs.
Prior to the escalating animal-rights activism of the late twentieth century, gorillas -- and other wild animals -- were popular attractions. From 1949 onward, Earl Leonard Irwin (1909-1973), owner and co-founder of the store, acquired and introduced a menagerie of animals at what he came to call the B&I Circus Store, making him known worldwide. Irwin had long hoped to raise a gorilla from infancy to display at his store. A decade before Ivan's capture, Seattle's western lowland gorilla Bobo (1951-1968) was captured by a gorilla hunter in the region that was then French Equatorial Africa and brought to the United States in 1951 at about 2 weeks old. Bobo was purchased from the hunter by William "Bill" P. Lowman (1915-2000) and raised like a human child in Anacortes by the Lowman family. By 1953, however, Bobo had outgrown his home and was taken to the Woodland Park Zoo, where he remained until his death in 1968.
The western lowland silverback gorilla affectionately known as Ivan was born in 1962 in the Republic of the Congo (Léopoldville), which would later become the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1964 Ivan and another young gorilla -- a female named Burma -- were captured by poachers. Earl Irwin arranged to purchase the two and had them brought to the B&I. Burma arrived first, the two gorillas having been transported separately, but she soon died of internal complications. When 2-year-old Ivan, who had been lost in transit for eight weeks, finally arrived in Tacoma in August 1964, he was weak and malnourished, weighing only 9 pounds. His chance for survival was slim. Ruben Johnston, manager of the pet shop at the B&I, his wife Lois Johnston (1923-1985), and their sons Larry and Danny raised the gorilla toddler in their modest home at 4601 S 72nd Street in the Manitou neighborhood of South Tacoma. Ivan thrived on love, attention, and constant companionship. Lois Johnston would startle local residents when she took Ivan -- still in diapers -- with her while shopping for groceries or waiting at the doctor's office.
Moving on Up
For 37 months the Johnstons raised Ivan as if he were a human child. Home movies captured his life with the family. Ivan slept in a bed, went to baseball games, held babies, raided the refrigerator, and rode on motorcycles. By the age of 5, Ivan had become too large, strong, and boisterous to continue living with his human family. By that point, he had destroyed the Johnstons' home, causing an estimated $17,000 in damages. The Irwins and Johnstons, following the advice of experts, made the decision to cage Ivan in the B&I Circus Store.
At noon on Saturday, March 4, 1967, the new custom-built trailer that would serve as Ivan's cage arrived at the B&I Circus Store at 8012 South Tacoma Way. The Columbia Body and Equipment Company, of Portland, Oregon, which designed and built the structure, carefully placed the cage in a newly built section of the store. Viewing Ivan was free the weekend of his caging, and the B&I offered free balloons as an added attraction, handed them out to all children who came to see Ivan and his new home. But the B&I's plan was thereafter to charge for seeing Ivan, a policy attributed to authorities who opined he would benefit from a companion: "As a consequence the B&I will charge after Saturday and Sunday 10¢ per person to see Ivan and the money will help us to find a mate for this very, very valuable animal" ("'Ivan' to Be Caged ...").
Then the question became "Will it work?" ("'Ivan' to Be Caged ..."). Never before had such protections been provided for an animal's home. The Johnston family introduced Ivan to the plush, warm, and strong cage, and the gorilla appeared to be enjoying his new environment, playing and pounding his fists and moving about the sawdust-covered floor. The custom-built, state-of-the-art mobile concrete trailer, appraised at more than $60,000, was now his home.
To reduce Ivan's isolation, 16-year-old Larry Johnston planned to spend the first week with Ivan. Ivan, raised like a human in the Johnston household, was used to having his family around, but it had been determined that the 80-pound 5-year-old needed to be in a different environment. Ivan's cage was constructed with the expectation that he would "grow to six or seven feet high and weigh six or seven hundred pounds" ("'Ivan' to Be Caged ...").
The Tacoma News Tribune reported that Ivan's cage included an operating table that would allow doctors and scientists to study, operate on, and provide medical attention to Ivan or any animal occupant, along with such conveniences as hot and cold running water, baseboard heating, a built-in television set, and more:
[A] fire sprinkling system, two and one-half tons of reversed refrigeration, the finest electronic filtering system, moving walls for two cages and an interlocking transfer cage. The cage has 120-volt, 12-volt, 220-volt for electricity, aluminum diamond plate walls that fold down making approach ramps and walkways around the entire mobile home, a complete kitchen for preparing food, top and bottom ends and sides are covered with one-inch steel bars (that are 6" apart), $10,000 worth of tempered glass, and many other unique features" ("'Ivan' to Be Caged ...").
The cage was seen as a new concept in confining large animals. Columbia Body and Equipment Company, known for its trucks, trailers, and heavy-duty equipment, called the cage it designed and built "a rare jewel in the world of heavy duty transfer equipment" ("'Ivan' to Be Caged ..."). The company, with Merrill Femrite (1913-1979) as project engineer, began work on the cage in 1966, and spent four months planning and producing a structure designed to withstand a 700-pound gorilla. To transport the cage from Portland to Tacoma, three permits were required.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, animal rights groups seeking to move Ivan to an environment more suited to his species campaigned to encourage the community and nearby cities to place pressure on the B&I store to move him. In 1992 the B&I filed for bankruptcy. In 1994, the Irwin family donated Ivan to Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. The Seattle zoo lacked space to house Ivan, so that October he was sent to Zoo Atlanta on permanent loan. After 27 years at B&I, Ivan was finally in a more natural setting and in the company of other gorillas, although he showed little interest in socializing with them. Ivan lived his final 18 years at Zoo Atlanta until his death there on August 20, 2012, at the age of 50.
Ivan's legacy has been honored through two books: The One and Only Ivan (2012) and Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla (2014), both by Katherine Applegate. In 2016, a statue of Ivan was unveiled at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma. A stage adaptation of The One and Only Ivan opened at the Synchronicity Theater in Atlanta in February 2017, and in May 2018, Disney began production of a film based on the book. The film, The One and Only Ivan, was released in August 2020, with actor Sam Rockwell giving voice to Ivan.