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Zoo Atlanta mourns Ivan the western lowland gorilla
Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Friends coast-to-coast advocated change for one of the nation’s most famous apes

ATLANTA – August 21, 2012 – Ivan, a 50-year-old male western lowland gorilla, has died at Zoo Atlanta. Following a recent decline in the geriatric ape’s health and behavior, the Animal Management and Veterinary Teams elected to perform a diagnostic assessment under general anesthesia on August 20, and Ivan never regained consciousness following the procedure.

“The Veterinary Team had been observing Ivan carefully in recent weeks following weight loss, apparent lack of appetite, and a respiratory illness. When it became obvious that our efforts to modify his diet and his existing medication regimen were not resulting in significant improvement, it was necessary to perform a diagnostic procedure to determine the underlying causes of Ivan’s condition,” said Hayley Murphy, DVM, Director of Veterinary Services. “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.”

Ivan had been a cherished member of the Zoo Atlanta family since 1994, but it was the story of his youth that caught the attention of the nation. Born in the wild in approximately 1962 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivan was sold by wildlife traders to the owners of a Tacoma, Wash., department store in 1964. Three years later, the young gorilla was moved to an indoor enclosure inside the store, where he would spend the next 27 years as Tacoma’s most famous non-human resident. The “Shopping Mall Gorilla” collected thousands of friends, fans and visitors, but by the mid-1990s, Ivan’s solitary lifestyle had ignited a national movement to have him relocated. Facing mounting pressures from the zoological and animal rights communities, Ivan’s owners donated the then 32-year-old gorilla to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo in 1994.

By the time Ivan was donated to the Woodland Park Zoo, his nearly three decades indoors and alone closely paralleled events in the life of another famous ape, Zoo Atlanta’s Willie B., whose 1988 entry into a naturalistic social environment made national headlines. Given the Zoo’s success with Willie B.’s socialization, and its growing reputation as a leader in the care and study of western lowland gorillas, the Woodland Park Zoo transferred Ivan to Zoo Atlanta on permanent loan in October 1994. In spring 1995, he entered The Ford African Rain Forest on his first trip outside in nearly 30 years.

Ivan proved socially compatible with a succession of female companions who shared his habitat over the years, and was even observed mating on at least one occasion, but he never sired any offspring. He did, however, spend 18 years capturing the hearts of a new generation of caregivers, visitors and friends with his one-of-a-kind personality and majestic presence. No lover of chilly or damp weather, Ivan disdained temperatures below 70 degrees Fahrenheit and, persnickety about dewy grass, was often seen using a burlap bag to protect his feet from damp grass. He also became an avid painter, preferring this activity to many other types of enrichment, and was known to “sign” his works with a thumbprint.  And while he never seemed to outwardly reject the company of other gorillas, it was obvious that Ivan’s most enduring social relationships were with his keepers, with whom he formed close lasting bonds.

“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. “Like Willie B. before him, Ivan is a symbol of the evolution of zoos and the movement to provide naturalistic, socially appropriate habitats for animals in zoological settings. His life illustrates, better than we ever could, the power of the community to promote change for wildlife, sometimes based only on a deep and abiding connection with just one animal.”

Ivan was one of four Zoo Atlanta gorillas who are 50 years old or older. His fellow seniors are female Shamba, 53; female Choomba, 50; and Ozzie, 51, the oldest male gorilla living in human care in the world. Gorillas are considered geriatric after the age of about 35.

As is the case with all animal deaths, regardless of age, a necropsy will be performed through the Zoo’s partnership with the University of Georgia Zoo and Exotic Animal Pathology Service in the College of Veterinary Medicine. The partnership combines the expertise of researchers from the University of Georgia Infectious Diseases Laboratory, based in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, and pathologists from the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Veterinary Pathology.

The Zoo Atlanta family shares the loss of Ivan with the Woodland Park Zoo, Ivan’s many friends and fans in Tacoma, Wash., and the countless others from across the U.S. who have served as advocates, admirers and supporters throughout Ivan’s long and remarkable life.