Ivan the Gorilla: A tribute to a friend, an icon for conservancy, and a story that will warm your heart

We recently learned of a GiveWP fundraiser to send the ashes of Ivan the Gorilla back home to the Congo.

When a GiveWP customer is raising money for such an iconic being and at the same time a movie is made about that same gorilla, well, we had to reach out and learn more.

There’s an old knock-knock joke that goes:
*Knock. Knock.
^Who’s there?
*Gorilla.
^Gorilla who?
*Gorilla my dreams, I love you!

For many, Ivan was that “gorilla my dreams.” And he was well-loved. In his 50 years on this planet, he loved and inspired. He even played jokes on his adoring audience by getting them to come close to the glass enclosure, then hitting it to scare them.

During his life, Ivan was friends with many humans, enjoying their company and finding ways to communicate. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivan lived in both Tacoma, Washington, and later at Georgia’s Zoo Atlanta.

We asked Earl Borgert, a longtime friend of Ivan the Gorilla, and the Chair of the IvanTheGorilla.org foundation to share with us why fundraising in Ivan’s name is important, what they do with the funds they raise, and to share with us more about Ivan’s story.

The Ashes to Africa Fund

GiveWP: What inspired you to start the “Ashes to Africa” fund?

Earl Borgert: Ivan himself was my inspiration to start the Ashes to Africa fund. My personal relationship to him is a large part of this, but it is not the sole reason. His story has a meaning, it has a purpose and it did not end when he passed in 2012, we are watching it unfold right before us. Ivan’s life should have never happened, but it did, it is a tale unlike any other in our history and it will never take place again. This unique heritage of a gorilla being raised by a human family as one of their own and his life thereafter will exist only this once. It is the closest our kind will ever be to his. Since he had first arrived in America as an infant, Ivan was always the story. His time with the Johnston family in his youth gave him a unique understanding of our species that he was able to harness during his time at the B&I to affect an entire community. He could not speak so he learned how to communicate by connecting to everyone that had ever visited him.

Later in his life, when the controversy had started, it was tough for our family, but it was right for Ivan. It did not matter on which side one chose to stand, it only mattered that they stood for Ivan and once again, he was the story. His new life in Atlanta gave primatologists a keen insight into our close connection to his species. Science had yet to witness a gorilla that would ask for water with a cup or how he would ask for a burlap sack to stand on during rainy days because he did not like to get his feet wet. He was the only gorilla that would venture forth and engage with the patrons that had visited him at Zoo Atlanta and once again, he was the story. He expressed more principles of humanity than we do ourselves.

“I was born into Ivan’s life, not the other way around and in many ways he shaped the person that I am today. It is for these reasons and more that his end deserves to meet its beginning; to bring his life full circle by returning his Ashes to Africa. If his life was lived to bring us this message, then it would be my honor to live my life to see it realized.”

Ivan the gorilla and a young man riding a bike in a store.

Returning Ivan the Gorilla to Africa

GiveWP: We see the fundraising is for teammates to be involved in the return of Ivan’s ashes to Africa. What are your plans when you get there? What will you do with Ivan’s ashes?

Earl Borgert: At present, we intend to procure funding for four people to be involved in the return of his Ashes to Africa. Jodi Carrigan, the Associate Curator of Mammals at Zoo Atlanta was Ivan’s primary caregiver and friend for this chapter of his life. Jodi travels to Africa every two years with Zoo Atlanta; in August of 2021, she will be visiting both Kenya and Uganda. Since she was Ivan’s closest friend for many years, it is a must for her to take part in this epic return of his remains and we hope to raise enough funds to travel with her. Ivan’s native homeland is the Democratic Republic of the Congo; this area of Africa may be challenging for us to visit for many reasons. Therefore, we may be able to only get so close for his return and as for an exact location; at this time, I cannot say. I have yet to travel to Africa to know this piece of his puzzle, but I have faith that Ivan will guide us to the place of his choosing.

The I.V.A.N. Foundation

GiveWP: What other fundraising are you doing on the website?

Earl Borgert: Ivan has influenced people his entire life and continues to do so long after his passing. The mission of The I.V.A.N. Foundation is to Inspire a Vision of Awareness and Nurture the ideas of younger generations that have been inspired by Ivan’s story. Our core goals will be to educate individuals about conservation and to provide scholarships to youth that intend to dedicate their careers to the betterment of the natural habitats for endangered species. In the future we hope to establish a Continuing I.V.A.N. grant that could be gifted to each scholarship recipient that will provide aid to carry on their I.V.A.N. mission

GiveWP: What message do you hope to share through this fundraising and your website?

Earl Borgert: That our kind should aspire to be more like his rather than to shape his kind to be more like us. Endangered species belong in their native homelands, but zoos play an integral part as well to protect the genome of these majestic creatures since their indigenous habitats are still not insulated from the effects of our impact. True change can only start at the roots with the succeeding generations of youth that have come to both know and love Ivan through his story. It will be their journeys that will carry his legacy.

“Once all the people that were part of his life have long passed; Ivan’s story will remain.”

Ivan and two girls.

The One and Only Ivan, The Movie

GiveWP: The movie “The One and Only Ivan” recently was released. Has this had any impact on your fundraising and your foundation?

Earl Borgert: Most definitely. We were not affiliated with The One and Only Ivan, our only involvement was providing Disney with the rights to use two of his baby pictures at the end of the movie that were used as part of a montage of his life. Our involvement in Ivan’s life has not always been portrayed in a kind manner and we were somewhat anxious about how Disney would depict our family. They told an adaptation of Ivan’s life that was not controversial and was without an agenda. It was brilliantly done since one of the core messages in the movie was Ivan’s human connection, a pillar of his life that has been long overshadowed by controversy. Once all the people that were part of his life have long passed; Ivan’s story will remain, but the connection we and others had with him will be lost with us. To share his story in its entirety, to celebrate and not ignore this connection will serve as a lasting tribute to remind everyone that to save them, is saving ourselves.

What’s Your Give Story?

Causes like Ivan the Gorilla inspire Team Give and keep us going. We love what we do, and stories like Ivan’s connect us all in a unique way.

We are proud to help power the Ashes to Africa fundraising project. We’d be honored to help you with your fundraising goals, too.

We continually look for Give Stories from real GiveWP users. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed when we call for new stories, or reach out to us through our Contact Form. If you’re not using GiveWP yet, book a demo with our Customer Success Team. We’d love to show you everything GiveWP can do for your cause.

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