November 15, 1993 12:00 PM

IF IVAN THE GORILLA STILL LIVED IN ZAIRE, where he began his life 29 years ago, he probably would be a big shot by now, maybe even the leader of his own band. Now in the prime of life, he cuts a fine figure, standing 5’8″ and weighing 500 pounds. Unfortunately for any impulse toward primate primacy he may harbor, Ivan isn’t in the African wild, where he was captured as an infant. He lives in Tacoma, Wash., behind shatterproof glass, at a run-down shopping center—and is at the center of a dispute between his owner and animal-rights activists.

To Ron Irwin, 46, whose father, Earl, bought Ivan for the menagerie he assembled to attract visitors to his B&I shopping center, Ivan is a big lovable lug who has never been around other gorillas and wouldn’t know what to do if he were. “This is the only home he knows,” says Irwin, who keeps Ivan in a 40-foot-by-40-foot enclosed concrete room painted with African scenes.

Mitchell Fox, director of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society in Lynnwood, Wash., which has campaigned for seven years to have Ivan transferred to a zoo, disagrees. “He’s a pale imitation of what a gorilla should be,” he says. “In a zoo, he could live a fulfilling gorilla life.” Roger Fouts, a Central Washington University primatologist, believes that Ivan “can be moved to a gorilla facility, resocialized successfully and live life as gorilla for the first Time.”

Finally, the case of the caged gorilla may be drawing to a close. B&I, which sells everything from Elvis paraphernalia to 99-cent toys, is bankrupt, and a court has ordered Irwin to turn its assets—including Ivan—over to a liquidating trustee, who will work with gorilla experts to decide Ivan’s future.

The Tacoma zoo has no gorilla habitat, but zoos in Atlanta, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, have expressed interest. A member of an endangered species, Ivan, who has never been mated, would bring a fresh set of genes to a captive-breeding program. And he might just enjoy his new life. Tests showing a very high sperm count have caused one primatologist to dub him the “stud of the West.”

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