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Ivan Dies At 50: A Gorilla Life, Remembered

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
August 23, 2012

I’ve written before in this space about how an animal obituary may help mark a life of significance. Here is my obituary for Ivan the gorilla.

On Tuesday, Aug. 21, a 50-year life that began in the freedom of Africa, included a 27-year period of solitary confinement in a concrete cell in a U.S. shopping center, and drew to a close via relaxed naps under Zoo Atlanta’s sunny sky, came to an end. One of the oldest gorillas in U.S. captivity, Ivan died following surgical assessment meant to discover why he was losing weight and feeling poorly.

Around 1962, Ivan and his twin sister were born in the African nation then known as Zaire (now the DRC, Democratic Republic of the Congo). When they were about 2, the youngsters were captured and sold by wildlife traders to a department store owner here in the U.S.

The sister died. Ivan lived as a pet until the inevitable happened, and he became too large to control. He was moved to the department store itself, in Tacoma, Wash. For the next 27 years, he lived on display, behind glass, in a 14 foot by 14 foot concrete cell. There, he smoked and ate hamburgers and lived utterly without ape companionship.

But times change, and collective action matters. More and more people began to grasp that this confinement of a highly social, smart ape wasn’t right. Locally and nationally, people began to fight for Ivan. And finally, in 1995, they won.

At Zoo Atlanta in that year, Ivan walked on grass for the first time in decades. The Zoo hoped he’d come to enjoy living with other gorillas, and though they made sure he resided with females for many years, it was never an easy or completely enjoyable road for him. At worst, the females picked on him, and at best, Ivan and a female would live side-by-side but not interact much.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported before his death this week, Ivan was suffering from the aches and pains of an aging primate. He took Centrum vitamins and was given an easier-to-chew diet. He lived alone, but with visual contact with nearby gorillas.

Animal lovers will wish that Ivan had grown up to become a magnificent silverback in the DRC, head of his own group. Humans didn’t allow that to happen. But after the terrible shopping-center period, Zoo Atlanta offered Ivan a life that could fairly be described as content. As the zoo’s Ivan page shows via a timeline, photographs and a video clip, Ivan enjoyed his favorite routines, and the sun, sky and grass of his enclosure. He had close bonds with people at the zoo. That he lived alone near the end seems at first a terrible irony. But it’s clear that all those years of emotional deprivation took their toll. He couldn’t make the adjustment towards enjoying gorilla-gorilla interaction.

Ivan’s story has touched thousands of people. He reminded us that even as we must face the “big” conservation and environmental problems with an ecosystem approach, we can’t forget the individuals, each of whom has a story, a personality and a history.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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