Tacoma Mall Gorilla’s True Story Isn’t As Pink As Disney’s Version
If you’ve seen Disney’s family film “The One and Only Ivan,” you know it tells the story of an adorable gorilla who lives in a mall with other talking animals but yearns to return to the natural world to be among other gorillas. As you can guess, he gets his wish. Believe it or not, the movie was inspired by real events that actually happened in our area, South Tacoma. The popularity of the film made me think of the true story of Ivan the Gorilla and his lasting legacy for Tacoma.
“One of the saddest things I’ve seen”
For nearly 30 years, beginning in the 1960s, the real Ivan lived in a concrete compound inside the B&I mall on South Tacoma Way. There was a window so people could look at it. My friend and former colleague Jenny Schmidt visited the store in the early 1990s. Suffice it to say, her impression was a little darker than depicted in the movie.
“For me, I didn’t really know what to expect when I went, and when I went, I was just devastated,” Schmidt said.
At the time, she was doing a story for NPR about Ivan, which was making headlines because animal rights activists were pushing for the gorilla to be relocated to a more suitable environment.
“It’s funny, when you mentioned Ivan, I’m like, I still think about Ivan all the time because that was just one of the saddest things I’ve seen. Little kids would come banging on the window and people were taking pictures. It’s like being in solitary confinement, but where everyone can see you all the time,” Schmidt said.
What surprised her was how some people who had lived in Tacoma all their lives saw her predicament.
“I remember one lady, I asked her, did she mind the situation he was in, and she was like, ‘Oh, no. It’s my house. We love Ivan. I’ve been coming to see him since I was little,” Schmidt said.
To understand how this magnificent silverback gorilla ended up living in a concrete cell in a ramshackle mall in Tacoma, you have to go back to 1964. That’s when Ivan and a baby gorilla were captured in what was then the Belgian Congo, today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were bought, apparently you could still do it back then, by the B&I store and shipped to Tacoma. The gorilla girl died, leaving only Ivan.
At first he lived like a human
During his first three years in the Northwest, Ivan’s life seemed, from a human point of view, quite ideal. He was not in a cage. He lived with the family that ran the B&I pet store.
There are home movies from that time – of him eating ice cream, brawling with the other kids, getting a snack out of the fridge, and cuddling with the human mother. At one time, the family even took Ivan to Hollywood, where he starred in an episode of the TV show “Daktari”. He stayed at a motel with the family during filming.
From home life to a cage in a store
But then life with the family came to an end.
Ivan went from being one of the children to living in a cage in the B&I store. The family say they loved him, but he was just getting too big and rambunctious to stay in their home. Among other things, he had removed all the fabric from the furniture.
For the owners of the B&I, having a gorilla on site was obviously an asset. And according to Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan, it perfectly matched the vibe of the place, known as the “circus store.”
“They had a carousel, and they had kiddie rides and clowns and bike shows — I mean, all kinds of things were going on, and in that context, it became part of the attraction of the store. “Sullivan said.
Unlike the movie, the real Ivan never performed as part of a circus act.
Sullivan says this was the era of roadside attractions, and the B&I was right on Interstate 99, the city’s main thoroughfare at the time. He says the store owners were entrepreneurs at the time, with over-the-top promotions to attract 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 maker, two chimpanzees lived there for years, so the idea of animals in stores was not new. I think it was kinda the style of the city at the time,” Sullivan said.
Still, says Sullivan, Ivan was special. Everyone in Tacoma knew who he was.
“He was definitely a celebrity in town,” Sullivan said.
Opposition to Ivan’s living situation grows
But times have changed. With competition from shiny new malls, the B&I store went into decline. Gone are the promotions that drew crowds. Fewer people came to shop. But still, there was Ivan, kids who came from time to time to knock on his glass.
By the 1990s, the world had begun to take notice. There were protests from animal rights groups. Next, a National Geographic documentary on urban gorillas featured Ivan.
“Just beyond the sporting goods lives a 400-pound gorilla named Ivan,” the dark narrator says over heartbreaking photos of Ivan in what looks like a prison cell.
Eventually, the store owners relented and donated Ivan to a zoo.
The True Ending vs. Disney’s Happy Ending
In 1995, Ivan was sent to Zoo Atlanta, where he spent his days with a troop of gorillas. For the first time in 27 years, he walked on the grass and looked at the trees. There is an iconic photo of him taken at the time reaching out to touch a magnolia blossom.
In the Disney movie, when Ivan arrives at Zoo Atlanta, the music turns up and you hear a young girl say, “Doesn’t he look happy?” This is the end you’ve been waiting for. But, in real life, Zoo Atlanta keepers say Ivan never fully bonded with the other gorillas and didn’t mate. He didn’t really fit in. It is said that he seemed more connected to the humans around him.
Ivan died at the zoo in 2012 at the age of 50.
Ivan’s legacy in Tacoma is complicated
Back in Tacoma, Ivan is not forgotten. In fact, people still come to see it. Well, a 500 pound bronze sculpture of him anyway. It is just outside the entrance to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.
On the fall day when I visit, the children stand in front of him while the parents take their picture. A couple, Stephen and Debbie Bailey, stop and look at him. Turns out they knew the real Ivan. Debbie tells me she worked at B&I, and I ask her how it was.
“Oh, that was kind of sad, mostly sad,” she said.
Stephen adds: “He always looked sad, he did. He approached the window and simply stared out, as if staring into space. It was amazing to be able to see an animal like that, but it was not good.
When I ask if people thought it was wrong at the time, they both shake their heads in the negative.
“I don’t remember anyone thinking there was anything wrong back then when I was younger. It wasn’t until he left that I realized he should have been somewhere like this 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 in a mall, that’s for sure. But we don’t really know how Ivan felt about his situation. If he could have communicated them, I suppose he could have told us that his choice would have been to stay where he was born and never have been taken away in the first place.
And maybe make us think about Ivan’s true legacy.