The story is placed at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Ivan, the silverback gorilla, has lived in captivity at the Big Top Mall for 9,855 days by his own tally. He lives in his domain, and is generally content with his life. He watches television, eats bananas and makes artwork that is sold by the owner. Along with Ivan, Stella the elephant and Bob, a stray dog, live a in one leg and regularly perform in the daily shows. Unlike Ivan, Stella has a long memory, and can remember living other places, like the circus where she was taught many of her tricks. However, Stella would like to live at a zoo, because they have much wider spaces for their domains. Stella believes that zoos are how humans make amends.
When Ruby, a baby elephant is brought to the Big Top Mall to live with Stella and learn new tricks, things begin to change. Stella's old injury causes her to get sick. Just before Stella succumbs to her illness and passes away, she asks Ivan to take care of Ruby and find her a better place. Ivan promises he will take care of Ruby, even though he does not know how he will manage to do it. After Stella's death, Ivan begins to remember his life before the Big Top Mall, and what it was like to have freedom, if only to have stories to tell to Ruby. While Mack, the owner of the Big Top Mall is trying to train Ruby to do tricks, Ivan witnesses first hand the abuse to which she is subjected and starts to decide how to keep his promise to Stella.
When Julia, the custodian's daughter gives Ivan some finger paints, he begins to get an idea of how to help Ruby. He also changes his opinion of the Big Top Mall. He no longer thinks of his area as his domain, but as a cage. Ivan uses his art to make a large picture of a zoo. George and Julia help him by putting it on the billboard outside of the Big Top Mall. When people see the new signs, they begin to protest the treatment of the animals. Investigators are sent to the Big Top Mall, and eventually it is closed down, and Ivan, Ruby and the other animals are taken away to a zoo. Ivan and Ruby are both adopted by the same zoo. Ivan was tested if he really was a silverback at the new zoo. The story ends with Ivan and Ruby adapting to their new habitats and the other animals they will live with.