Most of the main characters in the story are animals, however unlike normal animals they have human characteristics and personalities. They can speak with each other and they can understand what the humans say, but humans can’t understand them.
The main character of the story is Ivan, a gorilla. He is a round character whose personality develops as the story progresses. At the beginning, his inability to remember his past and simplistic thoughts suggest that he isn’t very intelligent. His creativity is limited, he can only paint things he sees, such as bananas and nothing beyond this (Applegate 38, 56). He has a warm and friendly personality, he cares about his friends and notices their discomfort (Applegate 52). At first, he takes his life as it is and he doesn’t expect it to change. This changes with the arrival of Ruby, the baby elephant. Ruby is very curious and inquisitive, she wants to learn. Ivan tries to answer every question she has and in doing so his memory improves, he can, for the first time, paint things using his imagination and memory (Applegate 92). At this point it becomes clear to the reader that Ivan isn’t stupid but he has supressed his past as self-protection. Ivan grew up with Mack, the owner and manager of the mall, which has led to his human-like behaviour and a loss of identity. Nevertheless, in Ivan’s eyes Julia is the only human being that understands him.
Stella is an intelligent and kind elephant. She has an excellent memory and enjoys telling stories from her past to her friends because she knows that this is the only variety in their lives. There is an occasion in the story when she has a strong pain but she doesn’t show it to the others because she doesn’t want them to worry about her, unaware of her pain they ask her to tell a story, which she does (Applegate 63). This shows she has a big heart and a selfless nature, she doesn’t even show the depression she has about her living conditions. When Ruby arrives Stella immediately takes care of her and she develops maternal feelings.
Ruby, the baby elephant, is very curious and has plenty of questions. She loves listening to jokes and always wants the others to tell her some (Applegate 96). She is always friendly and in a good mood. In comparison to the others Ruby has had a good experience with people in the past.
Additional to the animal characters there are also two major human characters. In the book you don’t feel much sympathy for people as they are shown as superficial and they just care about themselves.
Mack is the owner and the manager of the mall and Ivan’s keeper. As mentioned he displays many of the characteristics of a capitalist. He is often in a bad mood, annoyed and quickly loses his temper (Applegate 32). He doesn’t care about the animal’s feelings, for him they are just objects with whom he can earn money and this is his priority (Applegate 73, 109).
Julia is the child of the mall’s cleaner, while her father is working she spends time with the animals. She differs completely from the other humans, she is very caring, loving and animal friendly. She is interested in the animals’ actions and their well-being. She wants a veterinarian to come to help Stella as she is aware of how bad her condition is (Applegate 110). In comparison to the adults she focuses on the health of the animals and not on money, she is very hurt when Stella dies. Julia is a symbol for how pure children are and that sometimes they know better than any adult about what truly matters.
Julia and Ivan have a special relationship: Julia enjoys painting and she shares this particular liking with Ivan. In the past she has brought him crayons to help begin his painting career. They see and respect each other as artists. Julia is the only human who understands the meaning of his pictures. That’s why Ivan trusts in her, when he plans his way out of the cage.