the Shopping Mall Gorilla
By Julie Hughes
Of all the stories about human commodification
and exploitation of animals, the shocking cruelty of trade in
wild animals, and our collective failure to consider their interior
lives and manifest needs for companionship and dignity, none
perhaps is more moving than that of Ivan the gorilla.
Ivan, a magnificent silverback gorilla, spent 27 years imprisoned in
a display window at a now defunct Tacoma, Washington discount shopping
mall. Ivan was there to attract shoppers who would ogle him as they
strolled by, spending a pleasant day shopping for additions to their
wardrobe or kitchen counter. Ivan was not alone in the store: the owner,
Earl Irwin, had a menagerie of exotic animals in his bizarre circus
of commerce. Ten years ago, Ivan's plight was made public in the newsletter
of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a non-profit organization
dedicated to raising awareness of animal issues. Thanks to PAWS' efforts
protesting, getting petitions signed, undertaking public education
and, finally, through lawsuits, two years ago Ivan began a new life
at Zoo Atlanta along with 17 other gorillas.
Up to the very end, however, the children of Earl Irwin made things
difficult. They insisted on a clause in the contract which barred Zoo
Atlanta from divulging anything about Ivan's previous owners or his
upbringing, and stipulating that the transfer must be referred to as
a "gift" rather than a "rescue." The Zoo reluctantly complied and Ivan
was free, or as free as a captive animal can be, to socialize with
others of his species after almost 30 years of solitary confinement.
At first, Ivan was wary of his new surroundings at the Zoo. Having
been subjected to a hard concrete cell for so long - the only semblance
of nature a fake waterfall painted along the wall - Ivan was curious
about almost everything; the feel of grass and rainwater amazed him.
Throughout his time at the mall, Ivan had had no contact - visually
or physically - with others of his species; he had been brought from
Zaire with a female companion, Burma, who died shortly after arrival.
Ivan, therefore, needed an extensive resocialization program and was
introduced to his peers slowly. When he first arrived in Atlanta, Ivan
spent three months in quarantine where he was checked for serious ailments
and then moved into the Ford African Rain Forest exhibit.
When I called Zoo Atlanta last month, a spokesperson informed me that
Ivan is doing quite well. He has learned how to behave like the proud
silverback he is, by charging, vocalizing, and displaying. He also
seems much more relaxed. In fact, he has just been introduced to an
older female named Shamba, who, according to the Zoo, has been smitten
with Ivan for over a year. The staff at Zoo Atlanta is hoping for possible
offspring in the next few years.
Ivan's story appears to have a happy ending but what becomes clear
after a closer look is that this tragedy should never happened in the
first place. From the time of Ivan's birth, to his kidnapping, shipment
to the United States and imprisonment, Ivan was a victim. He had no
opportunity to roam free, mate, run or climb. Remarkably, although
perhaps instructively, he now displays no unusually aggressive or disturbed
behavior for someone who has been kept in miserable conditions for
most of his life. Everyone connected to his rescue and release speaks
of Ivan in the kindest and most respectful of terms.
Ivan's story is also a lesson in the abuse of the private ownership
of exotic and wild animals. Some individuals, well-meaning though they
may be, feel they will be able to provide for an exotic animal: they "ape-proof" their
house, buy the right food, and give up a great deal of their life to
devote to this animal, much like one would do for a child. Other owners
have monetary reward in mind. They purchase these animals, not as oversized "pets," but
as commodities. Both categories of exotic animal owner continue an
How many more Ivans are there out there? When I spoke to Dan Wharton,
Director of the Central Park Wildlife Center, he informed me that there
are presently only two gorillas privately owned in the country and
that situations such as Ivan's are thankfully rare. These two privately
owned gorillas are held captive in a small Florida zoo; however, PAWS
is working to change their status in much the same manner as Ivan's.
There are a greater number of chimpanzees held captive in the United
States than gorillas, although no precise numbers exist.
We can all make a difference. Never buy a fad pet - nowadays it's a
hedgehog, a few years ago it was the pot-bellied pig. Never visit a "roadside
zoo," (or any similar institution which has not been accredited by
the American Zoological Association) unless it is to find possible
violations! The longer people continue to pay admission fees, the longer
these establishments will stay in business. And for the more vocal
of you out there, yell, scream, write letters and protest. After all,
it worked for Ivan.
For more information on the Progressive Animal Welfare
Society, contact: PO Box 1037, Lynnwood, WA 98046 or call