Larry Johnston had an unusual childhood growing up in Tacoma in the 1960s — as big brother to a lowland gorilla his parents brought home as an infant.
Ivan the gorilla eventually became a main attraction when he was moved to Tacoma’s World Famous B&I Circus Store, but for three years the teenage Johnston shared meals and other adventures with him. Now he’s sharing his family’s home movies of Ivan.
The owner of the Tacoma shopping center wanted a gorilla to display as a promotion, and arranged to buy one captured from the wild (the B&I store also had a baby elephant, seals, and bears). But when Ivan arrived in Tacoma, he was in poor health and the Johnstons, who operated the pet store at the B&I, brought Ivan and a female baby gorilla to the home they had recently purchased.
“We were all excited to be in our own lovely, spacious home and suddenly these two little creatures show up in our lives,” Johnston said. “(We) had no idea what was to come, nor did we have any idea of the destruction that we were about to live through.”
To gorilla-proof their home, the family had to remove much of the furniture, family photos, and curtains from the home. But Ivan sat at the family dinner table, went for rides on Johnston’s motorcycle, and cuddled with his adoptive mother.
Ivan lived with the Johnstons for three years, until he was 3 years old. By then, he weighed 60 pounds and proved too big and powerful to remain in their home. He was moved to the shopping center in 1967, but his 27 years in a solitary cage eventually was seen by many as embarrassment.
A 1991 documentary called “The Urban Gorilla” sparked a “free Ivan” campaign, featuring him as a sad example of the way gorillas used to be housed.
Animal-welfare activists and primate experts worked to get him transferred to Zoo Atlanta in 1994 so he could live in a more natural habitat with other gorillas. Ivan was between 48 and 50 years old when he died in 2012, which put him among the longest-lived captive gorillas.
The News Tribune in Tacoma and Seattle Times contributed to this report.