Lisa Wathne spent seven years of her life working at PAWS in Lynnwood trying to get Ivan the gorilla released from a Tacoma department store.
Ivan lived for 27 years in a concrete enclosure at the B&I Shopping Center before a national movement prompted store owners to release the male western lowland gorilla to a new home at Zoo Atlanta in 1994.
When zoo officials announced Aug. 21 that the 50-year-old gorilla died, Wathne, who now lives in Lake Forest Park, contacted the people she worked with to give Ivan a better life.
“It’s sad to know that he is gone but we’re just so glad that he had lived to be 50; that he had 18 very, very good years at Zoo Atlanta,” she said.
Ivan never regained consciousness after he was put under general anesthesia Aug. 20 for a diagnostic assessment, Zoo Atlanta said. The zoo says the geriatric ape had recently lost weight, seemed to lack appetite and had a respiratory illness.
“General anesthesia carries a degree of risk in any veterinary procedure, but these risks are compounded in an individual of Ivan’s advanced age and delicate condition. We are heartbroken that this proved the case, and Ivan did not recover from the anesthesia,” said Hayley Murphy, director of veterinary services.
Ivan was born in the wild around 1962 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Wildlife traders sold him to the owners of a department store in Tacoma in 1964. He moved to the in-store enclosure three years later.
Wathne, who now advocates for the release of captive exotic animals for the Humane Society of the United States, described Ivan’s in-store enclosure as dark and barren, “a truly miserable existence.”
“It was suitable by no means, not only the physical environment, but the fact that he was alone,” Wathne said. “That was probably the cruelest part about it.”
Ivan was a fixture in the community, but when attitudes began to change about how animals should be treated, people came together to improve his situation, Wathne said.
“I remember seeing him as a child, I was maybe 8 or 9, and thinking he was just so lonely,” said PAWS communications coordinator Mark Coleman of Edmonds.
Community members signed petitions and donated money for newspaper advertisements to rally support and convince owners to release Ivan. People came to the store front in large groups to protest the treatment of Ivan with signs and usually someone in a gorilla suit, Wathne said.
The movement gained momentum and National Geographic Explorer filmed a documentary about Ivan before he was released, titled “Urban Gorilla.”
“Support started coming in from both coasts,” Coleman said.
Facing pressure from zoological and animal rights communities, the store in 1994 donated Ivan to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. He was moved to Zoo Atlanta on permanent loan in October 1994.
Woodland Park Zoo didn’t have enough room for Ivan and chose Zoo Atlanta because the staff already had experience with socializing a solitary gorilla.
“Any captive gorilla would dream of Zoo Atlanta. He hit a home run when he ended up there,” Wathne said.
The community was overwhelmingly in favor of moving Ivan, she explained.
“Even people who had been looking at Ivan since they were children recognized that this was not a good situation for him. Many people were sorry to see him go, but they knew he deserved better,” Wathne said.
Zoo Atlanta offered free admission to anyone from Washington state so that they could see their old friend, she added.
Ivan was compatible with a number of female gorillas who lived in the same habitat over the years and was seen mating at least once, but he never fathered any offspring. He formed close lasting bonds with his keepers.
“This is a tremendous loss to the Zoo Atlanta family, and it is a loss that spans two coasts. It’s because of the great love Ivan inspired in his years on the West Coast that the wheels were ultimately put in motion to have him join us here at Zoo Atlanta,” said Raymond King, president and CEO.
Ivan was known to dislike cool or damp weather and was often seen using a burlap bag to protect his feet from dewy grass. He also seemed to enjoy painting and was known to “sign” his works with a thumbprint.
Gorillas are considered geriatric after the age of about 35. Ivan was one of four Zoo Atlanta gorillas who are 50 years old or older. The other seniors are females Shamba, 53, and Choomba, 50, along with Ozzie, 51, the oldest male gorilla living in captivity in the world.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.