The Life of Grape-kun
On Friday October 13th, Tobu Zoo in Saitama Japan announced via Twitter that “Grape-kun” the Humboldt penguin had passed away.
Grape-kun became internationally famous this May when he started to exhibit mating behavior towards a cardboard cutout of “Hululu”, an anthropomorphized Humbolt penguin character from the anime Kemono Friends.
Upon the news of Grape-kun’s death, anime fans all over the world mourned his passing. News organizations such as the BBC, the Kurier (Austria), Haberturk (Turkey), and the Liberty Times (Taiwan) reported on the event.
However, outside of Japan, little has been written about the dramatic events of Grape-kun’s early life; how those events precipitated Grape-kun’s unrequited love for Hululu; and how that love story would captivate an international audience of animal loving anime fans, making Grape-kun the most famous Humboldt penguin in the world. This article will attempt to narrate those events for an international audience.
A Sad Past
Grape-kun was born in April of 1996 at Hamura Animal Park, a small facility located in the western region of the Tokyo metropolitan area. Grape-kun lived at Hamura Animal Park for the first ten years of his life, and eventually became mates with a female penguin named “Midori”.
In March of 2006, a newly refurbished penguin enclosure was completed at Tobu Zoo. To populate this enclosure, some Humbolt penguins were selected from Hamura Animal Park. Grape-kun and Midori were among the couples chosen, and moved to their new home in 2007.
After moving to Tobu Zoo, Grape-kun and Midori continued to mate. They produced a single male chick named “Hanpen”. However, in the interest of encouraging genetic diversity among the penguin populations at various zoos, Tobu Zoo officials elected to send Hanpen to a foster family at Edogawa Zoo while he was still an egg. Grape-kun and Midori never saw their chick, and the sudden loss may have caused their bond to deteriorate.
In Humboldt penguin society, mated couples usually stay together for their entire lives. However, in 2010, Grape-kun had to be removed from the enclosure for medical treatment. During his absence, Midori began mating with a much younger male penguin named “Denka”.
Even among penguins, infidelity seems to be taboo, and adulterous Humboldt penguins are often ejected from their flock. Mysteriously, in the case of Grape-kun, the opposite occurred; Grape-kun himself became estranged from the flock while Midori and Denka were accepted. It’s possible that this happened because Denka was much younger than Grape-kun and was recognized as the fitter mate. It’s also possible that the other penguins took Grape-kun for dead while he was in the hospital.
Whatever the case, Grape-kun now found himself alone, but still living in the same enclosure as Midori and her new mate. One can only guess whether a penguin can entertain emotions like grief, but Grape-kun stopped eating during this time. Eventually, it became necessary for his handlers to feed him, as he would not eat on his own. Midori and Denka continued to mate and eventually hatched a chick named “Beer”. Beer also lived in the same enclosure as Grape-kun.
Incidentally, as mentioned above, Grape-kun and Midori fostered a son named Hanpen. Hanpen, remarkably, was the center of his own oedipal drama; after reaching adulthood, he violently took his foster-mother as his own mate. Some have commented that Hanpen ‘got it from his mother’, but that’s another story.
Having lost his mate and (perhaps for the best) never knowing his own son, Grape-kun hit rock-bottom. This might have been the final chapter of Grape-kun’s life had “Hululu” not come to Tobu Zoo.
In May of 2017, Tobu Zoo and the anime show Kemono Friends held a special collaboration event. Fifty cardboard cutouts depicting the anthropomorphized animal characters from the show were placed at different locations throughout Tobu Zoo. Among the cutours was a Humboldt penguin character named “Hululu”, which was placed right in the middle of Grape-kun’s enclosure.
Up until the Kemono Friends event Grape-kun had remained isolated and moribund, but after Hululu’s arrival he began moving to the center of his enclosure to stare at the anime character. Grape-kun would try to climb onto the cardboard cutout’s rocky platform in order to stand next to it, and refused to leave its side. Zookeepers had a difficult time getting Grape-kun to separate from Hululu long enough to eat, but they were happy to find that his appetite had returned. Grape-kun began eating on his own, and when not standing next to Hululu he would splash around energetically in his water pool.
No other penguins reacted to Hululu’s presence like Grape-kun, and Zoo-goers noticed this behavior too. Grape-kun, “the penguin who fell in love with an anime character”, quickly became an internet star. As word of Grape-kun’s “anime wife” spread, officials took notice as well. Chikuta Ikuko, the voice actress who portrays the Hululu character in the Kemono Friends anime, traveled to Tobu Zoo to see Grape-kun.
When the Kemono Friends event ended, the zookeepers and project managers recognized Hululu’s importance to Grape-kun, and opted to leave the cutout in place. Tobu Zoo also began to sell merchandise related to Grape-kun. Throughout the summer of 2017, Grape-kun’s media profile continued to grow, and Tobu Zoo enjoyed many new patrons who came to see the famous penguin. Animal behavior specialists were puzzled by Grape-kun’s behavior, and could not decisively conclude whether or not he truly “loved” the Hululu cutout or not, but most agreed that Grape-kun felt a special attachment to it.
On October 9th, caretakers noticed a drop in Grape Kun’s weight despite no change in his appetite. On October 10th, he was removed from the penguin enclosure for medical treatment. Mindful not to cause Grape-kun undue stress, caretakers brought Hululu along. Many of Grape-kun’s fans offered their well-wishes, but by the evening of October 11th Grape-kun could no longer stand on his own and required an intravenous drip. On the afternoon of October 12th, he quietly passed away.
For many penguins in captivity, the cause of death is commonly respiratory in nature, and many suffer from asphyxiation before they die. However, this was not the case with Grape-kun, who passed away peacefully with his beloved Hululu by his side.
Grape-kun’s sudden death came as a shock to zoo officials. A two-week “Grape Festival” based around the Grape-kun was only a month away. Chikuta Ikuko and other Kemono Friends staff wrote eulogies on their social media accounts. Mourners delivered a small mountain of white chrysanthemums and purple roses to a memorial at the Tobu Zoo. Some have even begun fund-raising for a bronze statue. Zoo workers, still reeling from the loss, are rushing to plan a wake for Grape-kun, the details of which have not yet been announced.
It’s mysterious to think about how many unlikely circumstances coincided to bring Grape-kun into our lives. What if Grape-kun and his mate had never been moved from one zoo to another? What if they hadn’t lost their first chick? What if Grape-kun’s mate hadn’t had an affair? What if Kemono Friends hadn’t become a commercial success? What if Tobu Zoo and Kemono Friends hadn’t run their promotional event? What if the Hululu cardboard cutout hadn’t been placed in Grape-kun’s enclosure? What if Grape-kun hadn’t become attached to that cardboard cutout? If even one of these things hadn’t occurred, we never would have met Grape-kun, smiled at his affection for Hululu, or felt sad to know of his passing.
I’m glad that we had the chance.