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The true story of Tacoma's shopping mall gorilla not as rosy as Disney version

If you’ve seen Disney’s family film “The One and Only Ivan,” you know it tells the story of a lovable gorilla who lives in a shopping mall with other talking animals but longs to return to the natural world to be among other gorillas. As you might guess, he gets his wish. Believe it or not, the movie was inspired by real events that actually played out in our area, in south Tacoma.The popularity of the movie got me thinking about the true story of Ivan the gorilla and his lasting legacy for Tacoma.

'One of saddest things I saw’

For nearly 30 years, beginning in the 1960s, the real Ivan lived in a concrete enclosure inside the B&I shopping center on South Tacoma Way. There was a window so people could look in at him. My friend and former colleague Jenny Schmidt visited the store in the early 1990s. Suffice it to say, her impression was a little bleaker than what’s portrayed in the movie.

“For me, I didn’t really know what to expect when I went there, and when I went in there, I was just devastated,” Schmidt said.

At the time, she was doing a story for NPR about Ivan, who was in the news because animal rights activists were pushing to get the gorilla relocated to a more appropriate environment.

“It’s funny, when you mentioned Ivan, I’m like, I still think about Ivan all the time because it was just one of the saddest things that I saw. Little kids would come and tap on the window, and people would take photos. It’s like being in solitary but where everybody can see you all the time,” Schmidt said.

What surprised her was how some people who’d lived in Tacoma all their life saw his predicament.

“I remember one lady, I asked her, did it trouble her the situation he was in, and she was like, 'Oh, no. This is his home. We love Ivan. I’ve been coming to see him since I was a little girl,' ” Schmidt said.

To understand how this magnificent silverback gorilla ended up living in a concrete cell in a rundown strip mall in Tacoma, you have to go back to 1964. That’s when Ivan and a baby girl gorilla were captured in what was then the Belgian Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were  purchased, apparently you could still do that then, by the B&I store and shipped to Tacoma. The girl gorilla died, which left just Ivan. 

In early years, he lived like a human

For his first three years in the Northwest, Ivan’s life looked, from a human perspective, pretty ideal. He wasn’t in a cage. He lived with the family who ran the pet store at the B&I.

There are home movies from that time -- of him eating ice cream, roughhousing with the other kids, getting a snack out of the fridge and cuddling with the human mom. At one point, the family even took Ivan to Hollywood, where he starred in an episode of the TV show “Daktari.” He stayed in a motel with the family during filming.

From life at home to a cage in a store

But then life with the family ended.

Ivan went from being just one of the kids to living in a cage in the B&I store. The family says they loved him, but he was just getting too big and rambunctious to stay in their house. Among other things, he’d stripped all the fabric off the furniture.

For the owners of the B&I, having a gorilla on site was obviously a draw. And according to Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan, it very much fit the vibe of the place, which was known as "the circus store." 

“They had a carousel, and they had rides for kids and clowns and bicycle shows -- I mean, all kinds of stuff going on, and in that context, he became part of the attraction of the store,” Sullivan said.

Unlike in the movie, the real Ivan never performed as part of a circus act, though.

Sullivan says this was the era of the roadside attractions, and the B&I was right on Highway 99, the main drag through the city at the time. He says the owners of the store were entrepreneurs of the era, with over-the-top promotions to draw in customers. And, he says, they weren’t the only ones.

“At the Java Jive in Tacoma, which was built in the shape of a coffee pot, two chimpanzees lived in there for years, so the idea of animals in stores wasn’t novel. I think it was a little bit of the style of the city in those days,” said Sullivan.

Still, Sullivan says, Ivan was special. Everybody in Tacoma knew who he was.

“He definitely was a celebrity in town,” said Sullivan.

Opposition to Ivan’s living situation grows

But times changed. With competition from shiny new shopping malls, the B&I store went into decline. Gone were the promotions that drew big crowds. Fewer people came by to shop. But still, there was Ivan, kids coming by occasionally to knock on his glass.

By the 1990s, the world had started to take notice. There were the protests from animal rights groups. Then a National Geographic documentary on urban gorillas featured Ivan.

“Just beyond the sporting goods, lives a 400-pound gorilla named Ivan,” says the somber narrator over heartbreaking photos of Ivan in what resembles a prison cell. 

Eventually, the owners of the store relented and donated Ivan to a zoo.

The real ending vs. Disney’s happy ending

In 1995, Ivan was sent to Zoo Atlanta, living out his days with a gorilla troop there. For the first time in 27 years, he stepped on grass and looked at trees. There’s an iconic photo of him taken at the time reaching out to touch a magnolia blossom.

In the Disney movie, when Ivan gets to Zoo Atlanta, the music swells and you hear a young girl say, "Doesn’t he look happy?" It’s the ending you expect. But, in real life, zookeepers in Atlanta say Ivan never fully bonded with the other gorillas, and he didn’t mate. He didn’t really fit in. They say he seemed more connected to the humans around him.

Ivan died at the zoo in 2012 at around the age of 50.

Ivan’s legacy in Tacoma is complicated

Back in Tacoma, Ivan isn’t forgotten. In fact, people still come to see him. Well, a 500-pound bronze sculpture of him anyway. It sits just outside the entrance to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

On the fall day when I visit, kids stand in front of him while parents take their picture. One couple, Stephen and Debbie Bailey, just stop and stare up at him. It turns out, they knew the real Ivan. Debbie tells me she used to work at the B&I, and I ask her what that was like.

“Oh, it was sad, kind of, mostly sad,” she said.

Stephen adds, “He always looked sad, he did. He would come up to the window and just kind of stare out, like stare into space. It was amazing being able to see an animal like that, but it wasn’t right.”

When I ask if people felt it wasn’t right at the time, they both shake their head no. 

“I don’t remember anybody thinking there was anything wrong with it then, when I was younger. It wasn’t till he went away that I realized he should have been somewhere like that all along,” Debbie Bailey said.

But, thinking about it, you have to wonder if a zoo, natural setting or not, is where Ivan “should have been all along.” It was better than living out his days inside a strip mall, for sure. But we don’t really know what Ivan thought about his circumstances. Had he been able to communicate them, I’m guessing he might have told us his choice would have been to stay where he was born and never have been taken in the first place.

And maybe getting us to ponder that is Ivan’s true legacy.