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Saturday, March 9, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Television

`The Urban Gorillas': An `Unnatural History' Film

No gorillas in the mist, these. They are city simians held behind more or less visible bars on a man-made island, an orphanage, a football-field-size private preserve carpeted with straw.

One named Ivan lives alone in two small concrete rooms at a Tacoma shopping center. Others reside in more jungle-like zoo habitats in Seattle, Columbus, Los Angeles.

Gorillas in the smog, if you will.

We meet them in an engrossing new National Geographic documentary, ``The Urban Gorilla.'' Cable station TBS airs the hour-long program tomorrow at 9 p.m. PST, then again Monday and next Saturday.

Numerous nature shows - including a recent special produced by KOMO-TV - have examined the plight of gorillas in the wild. A decade ago these high-climbers on evolution's ladder teetered on the brink of extinction. Logging and poaching in the African jungles are still carving up the primate's population.

That has pushed even more gorillas into the arms of man. ``The Urban Gorilla'' provides a rare, extended look at some of the estimated 650 gorillas in captivity.

``I've described this as an unnatural history film,'' said Allison Argo, who produced, directed and wrote the program. ``It's how we're handling the gorilla out of its natural environment.''

The answer in Ivan's case, Argo concludes: not as well as possible.

Born in the Congo, Ivan was shipped to Tacoma as an infant. At age 3, his owners put him on display at the B&I shopping mall, where he has lived for the past 24 years. Lacking monkey companionship, Ivan must settle for contact with humans alone. We see Bob Daugherty, a local anthropologist, dangling a banana into Ivan's cell and teaching him to fingerpaint.

``He's receiving good care,'' Argo said in a telephone interview from National Geographic offices in Washington, D.C. ``They feed him well. But it doesn't take the place of gorilla contact. They're social animals. They belong in family groups.''

In a postscript, Argo notes the Dallas Zoo has offered to relocate Ivan. Viewers can pledge support to that effort.

``The Urban Gorillas,'' narrated by Glenn Close, is no grainy hidden-camera expose, though. The few minutes devoted to Ivan are outweighed by more encouraging examples. Apes like Willie B.

After 27 years in solitary confinement at Zoo Atlanta in a cage smaller than half a tennis court, we watch Willie B. move to spacious outdoor digs with a dozen other gorillas.

Another segment shows John Aspinall and his private English gorilla preserve. He keeps the largest clan of gorillas in captivity, and interacts like a kissin' cousin. He wrestles, caresses, even nibbles the powerful beasts. Then he brings his 9-month-old granddaughter into the cage for a gorrilla-back ride.

At Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, ``The Urban Gorilla'' introduces us to Nina, part of a groundbreaking experiment in artificial insemination.

Argo and photographer Robert Collins, an Emmy award-winner whose credits include Bud Greenspan's 1984 Olympics documentary and the pilot for ``Miami Vice,'' started ``Gorillas'' four years ago. They shot more than 200 hours of film along the way.

Until this project, Argo worked as a stage and TV actor. Remember her appearance in an episode of ``WKRP in Cincinnati''? Probably not.

If there is any justice, ``Urban Gorillas'' should establish her reputation as a documentary maker.

It should also move us to reclaim Africa's jungles for the gorillas, and push for even better conditions in those zoos that lag behind the examples set in such places as San Diego and Seattle.

``I wanted the gorillas to tell their own stories,'' said Argo. ``I wanted to make this a moving experience.''

They do. She does.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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