Ivan the Gorilla (1962-2012)

I recently came across a story I find intriguing. We picked up a book called Ivan, The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla. I was shocked that I’d never learned or heard about Ivan before.

Ivan was brought to Washington from the Congo in the 60’s. He arrived here with his sister Burma, IvanandBurma-B&I.jpg.838x0_q80although she passed away just a few days after arrival to the U.S. For 3 years while Ivan was young, he lived with his owners. As he grew and started to become more rambunctious, he was moved to an enclosure located in a shopping mall called B&I shopping center in Tacoma, Washington. Ivan remained here for 27 years until he was finally transferred to a zoo in Atlanta.

As I did more research, I was shocked at Ivan’s living space. It was basically a concrete enclosure which was about 40ft x 40ft. It’s easy to see why animal rights groups arrived to relocate him.

In my opinion, it was easy to see how much love these people had for Ivan. They didn’t want to hurt him, but they just couldn’t figure out how to give him what he needed. After watching Ivan, he seemed to be happy. He loved to paint and play, but it was thought that Ivan needed to be in a zoo enclosure, safe with other gorillas he could socialize with. 

After he was transferred, life wasn’t easy for him. He struggled with the new living space and was hesitant with the other gorillas. Eventually he became comfortable with the other gorillas, becoming the silver back of the group, but he never had any offspring.

Here’s a video of Ivan’s story including interviews with the original owners. It’s a heartfelt video and you can visualize the emotion and love this group of people had for Ivan.



What’s so interesting about Ivan, is that he lived such a long life! He lived to be around 50 years old which is a great lifespan for a gorilla. Typically, this is considered rare and most will live to be around 40 years old. I believe Colo, from Columbus, Ohio, was the oldest living gorilla to date. She was 60 years old when she died.

Here are some books we read to learn about Ivan. The second one is a fiction book, with some truth to the story as well. If you’d like to add these on Goodreads, just click the covers.



Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla
Blurb: In a spare, powerful text and evocative illustrations, the Newbery medalist Katherine Applegate and the artist G. Brian Karas present the extraordinary real story of a special gorilla.
Captured as a baby, Ivan was brought to a Tacoma, Washington, mall to attract shoppers. Gradually, public pressure built until a better way of life for Ivan was found at Zoo Atlanta. From the Congo to America, and from a local business attraction to a national symbol of animal welfare, Ivan the Shopping Mall Gorilla traveled an astonishing distance in miles and in impact.

This is his true story and includes photographs of Ivan in the back matter.
  • Age Range: 4 – 7 years
  • Grade Level: Preschool – 3
  • Hardcover: 40 pages
  • Publisher: Clarion Books; First Edition edition (October 7, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0544252306
  • ISBN-13: 978-0544252301
My Review:

This book is the true story of Ivan the gorilla. He was brought to Washington straight from the Congo in the 60’s at the age of 6 months. The story explains how he lived for 27 years before he was finally sent to Atlanta zoo. The story is shocking, but children find it interesting and create their own views on how they feel about animals in captivity.

This book is aimed at a younger audience, but has a fact page in the back as well. I would recommend the National Geographic documentary for older children and adults. There are also a few videos on YouTube that kids can watch to see how Ivan grew up, and his life at his new home at Atlanta zoo.




The One and Only Ivan

Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope.

  • Age Range: 8 – 12 years
  • Grade Level: 3 -7
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; 1 edition (January 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061992259
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061992254
My Review: 

We really enjoyed this fictional story of Ivan the gorilla. The story made me think of the real Ivan and his life. What really went on in his head during those 27 years of being locked up in a dept. store?

The story is cute and great for all ages. It’s written well and easy to read. I’d recommend reading the true story about Ivan and his life before reading this fictional one.




There is also a National Geographic documentary on gorillas in captivity called “The Urban Gorilla.” This DVD features Ivan and other gorillas in captivity. I believe this can be watched on vimeo for free and is roughly 50 minutes in length.

Ivan the Gorilla
A life-sized (600 pound) bronze statue of Ivan the gorilla outside the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wa.


What are your thoughts on Ivan? Please feel free to comment with opinions or suggestions!

2 thoughts on “Ivan the Gorilla (1962-2012)

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