Thursday, March 20, 2014

Reading: The One and Only Ivan

"The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated." - Ghandi

"A righteous man regards the life of his animals." - Proverbs 12:10

"Whoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself."  - Prophet of Islam

Animals speak in a universal language that humans do not often understand.  In the book The One and Only Ivan, Ivan the Silverback Gorilla chooses his words very carefully so as not to waste them to share his story.  Author Katherine Applegate has crafted one of the most heart-wrenching animal tales I have read and reminds me of the importance of teaching our children about advocating for those whose voices are not always heard: animals.  

In The One and Only Ivan, the gorilla Ivan has been kept in a "domain" at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for 9,855 days.  He shares his space with a stray dog, Bob, and a wise, old elephant named Stella.  Mack, the owner of Big Top Mall, is feeling desperate with the current state of his business and brings a new baby elephant, Ruby, who was stolen from her family in the wilds of Africa.  Ivan begins to remember his own past when he looks at Ruby, who is chained to the floor for 23 hours a day in order to build her stamina so that she may balance in the circus show and make Mack some money, money, money!  But he isn't making enough, so he is forced to cut his budget and eliminates vital resources for his animals, including the care of a veterinarian.  When Stella gets an infection in her foot without the proper care, she makes Ivan promise that he will save Ruby by taking her to a zoo.  In The One and Only Ivan, the creatures consider the zoo paradise, and Ivan uses his artistic talent to advocate that Ruby go to the zoo.  With the help of the Big Top janitor and his daughter, his art is shared with the public, and Ivan is able to fulfill his promise and seek a better life for himself (and Bob, too).  

As Ivan tells his story, he speaks lowly of the humans that allow this business to happen, making me feel ashamed to be a member of this species!  Ruby shares that not all humans are bad; in fact, it was humans who saved her when she fell in a well. But it was also humans that kidnapped her from her family, and it was humans who kidnapped Ivan and his sister, Tag, when they were just babies.  Ivan's caretaker, Mack, seems to have a special bond with Ivan since he raised him like a child, letting Ivan ride around in his convertible with ice-cream wearing a baseball hat.  But he also kept Ivan isolated in a concrete box and he showed violent behavior toward Baby Ruby by hitting her with her a sharp claw when she was too tired to work.  His ignorance also resulted in the death of Stella, and the careless disposal of her body brought tears to my eyes.  Mack may care for Ivan in some way, which is evident by his sorrowful demeanor that he displays on his last evening with the gorilla, but he doesn't understand.  He doesn't understand the needs of wild animals and was simply capitalizing on their cuteness to make money.  Unfortunately, it was the public who supported his business by paying to see the cute animals, unaware of the misfortunes that they faced or of the needs that were absent in their lives.  
The One and Only Ivan is based on a gorilla
named Ivan, held captive in a Tacoma
mall for twenty-seven years. 

Courtesy of 

However, it is also the public that advocates for the release of Ivan and trains him to feel comfortable in a zoo setting.  With education of animals' needs, and empathy towards animals' feelings, people are able to work with animals in a way that does not deprive them of their needs.  Animals are more than just cute faces, and more and more, our society seems to becoming more accepting of this fact.  But there is still work to be done.  

Children need to be aware of the needs of animals at a young age so that they can develop habits that will not harm animals.  Many products sold in our country are still tested on animals, particularly products from the most popular and often cheapest companies.  I learned about animal testing in a research project that I completed for eighth grade, and ever since then, I have been haunted by products that do no bare a "Cruelty-Free" label on the back.  Had I not completed this project, I probably wouldn't be aware that some businesses still engage in this cruel practice.  I feel that in the small things that I do, such as buying cruelty-free products and volunteering at the animal shelter - a task I've done since junior high - I am making a difference and others can learn from these actions.  Children can make these same small decisions to make a big difference. Sharing The One and Only Ivan with children not only allows them to read an engaging story but also encourages them to be advocates for animals and to think about the difference between right and wrong.  The One and Only Ivan teaches empathy for animals, for the meek, for those who have no voice. 

It was humans that captured Ivan
and humans that sat him free.
Photo courtesy of
Interestingly, The One and Only Ivan was based on a true account of a gorilla that lived in isolation for twenty-seven years and was then released in the Atlanta Zoo, where he was allowed to thrive.  I was absolutely baffled by the story and relieved that Ivan was able to live his latter days in glory, though I wish he had never been subjected to isolation in the first place.  I was perplexed by how the animals in the story seemed to glorify zoos.  On the one hand, animals living in a zoo do not have to live in isolation.  But I do not think it is right to capture an animal in the wild so that it can live in a zoo, where it will not be able to develop independence and instinct and an ability to live in the wild on its own.  For animals being rescued or for animals that may be injured and have a slim chance of surviving in the wild, like Ivan and Ruby after their senseless capture, I feel that zoos are the best option.  I am curious to know if the animals in a zoo are there for these reasons or if they have been captured from their natural habitats.  The purpose of a zoo is to protect animals for human education, so I hypothesize that the animals in them are probably there because they would not be able to survive on their own.  But I want to do some follow-up research just for my own education.  
Ivan enjoys flowers in the Atlanta Zoo.
Courtesy of 

As an animal advocate, I love The One and Only Ivan.  I want to share it with my students to help them understand the importance of caring for our voiceless creatures.  I am thankful that author Katherine Patterson created such a wonderful story and gave the animals in it their voice.  To view more images of Ivan's life from baby gorilla to adult, visit the online archived pictures at Tacoma Public Library.

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