Como Zoo orangutans get $66,000 from local businessman with interesting donation history

Little Jaya plays on his rope swing. Jaya was born six years ago via emergency C-section at the U of M.
Little Jaya plays on his rope swing. Jaya was born six years ago via emergency C-section at the U of M.
courtesy Johannes Marliem

On Friday, the Como Zoo's baby orangutan, Jaya, turned six, and celebrated with a full-on birthday party. All four of the zoo's orangutans put on party hats, ate new foods like bagels and whipped cream, and unwrapped gifts like balls and strainers (for playing with their water or putting on their heads).

They also got another kind of gift: A $66,000 donation from local businessman Johannes Marliem.

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"It's unusual and it's really wonderful to have someone who has such a passion for the orangutans," says Jackie Sticha, the president of Como Friends.

Marliem's gift is among the largest individual donations the Como Zoo received this year, Sticha says, and one of its largest ever outside of a capital campaign.

Until a few months ago, Marliem's name was unknown among local philanthropists. But in April, the 29-year-old made headlines. That's when records related to President Obama's second inauguration were released -- and showed that Marliem had donated $225,000, making him Minnesota's biggest donor to the inaugural events.

It turned out that the newcomer didn't have an unblemished background. In 2010, he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of "theft by swindle" in Hennepin County, the Star Tribune reported, after writing bad checks. The Democratic National Committee's spokesperson told the Strib that contributions Marliem had made to the presidential campaign "would not have been accepted... if these facts had been known at the time."

On Friday, Marliem said that that background hadn't come up in his conversations with the Como Zoo, and that anyway, Jaya's birthday wasn't about any of that.

"This is all about orangutans and the cause," Marliem says. "We need to protect them. I want to show my daughter, and my daughter wants to show her daughter, that the orangutan is still there."

Jaya unwraps birthday presents at the zoo on Friday.
Jaya unwraps birthday presents at the zoo on Friday.

Born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, Marliem moved to the Twin Cities to attend the U of M, and stayed here to found Marliem Marketing Group, now Marliem Consulting. Indonesia and parts of Malaysia are the only places on earth that are home to wild orangutans.

Long passionate about the endangered great apes, Marliem has donated to orangutans before, and says he's adopted two of them in Bali. When he learned that the nearby Como Zoo was a leader in orangutan conservation, he was inspired to get involved.

"Even though their natural habitat is 8,000 miles away," Marliem says, "we can still do something in Minnesota."

-- Tips or comments? Reach Olivia LaVecchia by email or on Twitter at @olavecchia

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