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Don't Fence Him in

updated 04/03/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/03/1995 01:00AM

IVAN LUMBERS FROM HIS ENCLOSURE to a scattering of orange slices 10 feet away, carefully laying a path of hay across the wet grass as he goes. It is oddly dainty behavior for a 400-pound gorilla, but you can hardly blame him—Ivan hasn't been outdoors for 27 years, and he doesn't like to get his feet wet.

A 32-year-old western lowland gorilla, Ivan was captured as an infant in the former Belgian Congo (now Zaire) and a year later became a tourist attraction at the B&I Shopping Center, a discount mall in Tacoma, Wash. His home until late last year was a 40-by-40-foot cage with a painted waterfall. "There was something so tragic in the way he looked at you," says Mitchell Fox, a director of the Seattle-based Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). "It was a sterile and dismal atmosphere."

PAWS, which staged protests, circulated petitions and threatened lawsuits, won a victory for Ivan last October after the mall went bankrupt and Zoo Atlanta—which had 18 gorillas—agreed to take him in. Then on March 18, after three months of quarantine and one month of adaptation in a 15-by-20-foot indoor cage, Ivan first ventured into the 30,000-square-foot, oak-and-magnolia-shaded gorilla habitat. With more than 100 visitors applauding, the silverback strolled to a boulder and posed.

Zoo Atlanta director Terry Maple is a big fan. "Ivan's one of the cleverest gorillas I've ever seen," he says. "So far, he's proved to be amazingly adaptable." But his biggest test is yet to come. In mid-February, Ivan was put each night in a cage next to that of Molly, a 26-year-old female gorilla. Lately they've been sleeping fur to fur through the bars, and zoo officials are optimistic that Ivan will prove a quick study in studly matters.

PAWS director Mitchell Fox is delighted. "I can't describe how my heart soared to see him in this setting," he says. "From now on, every day will be an adventure for him."

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