When you hear about penguins, it’s usually about how adorable they look or how they mate for life. Or maybe somebody sends you a video of a penguin slipping, and the other penguins squawk in response. Cute stuff. But what if somebody told you that a penguin fell in love with an anime penguin – not just one drawn Japanese-style, but as an anthropomorphic female? Well, that is exactly the story of Humboldt penguin Grape – or Grape-kun as he was called in Japan – and of Hululu, his anime “waifu” (bastardized otaku way of saying “wife” with a Japanese accent).

PPP!

Hululu, in the anime’s story, is part of a penguin idol group called PPP (pronounced PePaPu—the first syllables of ‘Penguin Performance Project’ when pronounced in Japanese). It’s a group consisting of different penguins: Princess the Royal Penguin and leader of the group, Kotei the Emperor Penguin, Gen the Gentoo Penguin, Iwabi the Southern Rockhopper Penguin, and Hululu the Humboldt Penguin.

As an idol group, they would perform for other animals in the fictional zoo setting of Japari Park. In real life, the voice actresses of the five penguins also performed live… and dressed as their respective penguins!

Humboldt beginnings

Grape-kun (with “-kun” being an honorific the Japanese use to address a younger male) was born in April 1996 in Tokyo’s Hamura Zoo. For the first ten years of Grape-kun’s life, he lived in Hamura Zoo and got himself a mate – a pretty female penguin by the name of Midori.

At that point, life was going pretty well for Grape-kun. In 2006, Grape-kun and Midori were chosen from the Humboldt penguins in Hamura Zoo to move to Saitama to Tobu Zoo’s new penguin enclosure, which they did a year later.

October love fest

There were talks of having a Grape-kun Love Festival celebrating Grape-kun and his unique affections. The announcement was made on Tobu Zoo’s official Twitter account on October 9, 2017. The zoo even made an exclusive drink in his honor called “Loving Grape”, made with crushed grape jelly and soft cream. But does it taste as good as real love.

Three’s a crowd

When they moved to Tobu Zoo, Grape-kun and Midori were still going strong. Of course – penguins mate for life. The two had a chick named Hanpen. But when Hanpen was still an egg, he was moved from Tobu Zoo to Edogawa Zoo in the hopes of creating genetic diversity among the different zoos’ penguin populations.

This is where, people assumed, things started to get a bit rocky for them.

See, Grape-kun was a somewhat older penguin compared to the others, so when he got sick in 2010, he was removed from the enclosure for his medical treatments. This was probably “the moment” because while Grape-kun was gone, Midori started taking an interest in a younger penguin named Denka. (Can Midori be called a cougar? Is it right to call a penguin a cougar?)

When Grape-kun returned, Midori ignored him and instead spent her time with The Other Penguin, Denka.

Normally, infidelity in the penguin community calls for social rejection from the flock. Except – plot twist – Midori and Denka were accepted as a new couple, while Grape-kun was the one ostracized. Poor guy. For the first time in years, Grape-kun was alone.

Love wins

Soon, word of Grape-kun and his love for his waifu Hululu began to spread. The internet went absolutely nuts about them that some artists on Twitter drew fan art of Grape-kun and Hululu (spoiler alert: they were all ridiculously adorable). Even the staff behind Kemono Friends heard about Grape-kun, and Hululu’s voice actress, Ikuta Chikuko, went to see Grape-kun during an event in May 2017.

But as with all things, all good things had to come to an end… or so everyone thought. When the date for the end of the Kemono Friends collaboration event drew near, netizens expressed their concern. What would happen to Grape-kun if Hululu left? Surely, the Kemono Friends staff and Tobu Zoo officials would come to a compromise. The cutout surely had to be kept or reused.

As it turned out, nothing bad happened. The zoo officials and anime staff realized how important Hululu was to Grape-kun and decided to leave her in the enclosure. Love prevailed and Grape-kun kept his waifu!

Never alone

Sadly, all good things had to come to an end. And for real this time.

On October 10, Tobu Zoo officials tweeted that Grape-kun and the Hululu cutout would not be seen in the enclosure because of a change in his condition. The second the news broke, Twitter was flooded with well wishes for Grape-kun as well as fan art of Hululu nursing Grape-kun.

Grape-kun, by then, was already a 20-year-old Humboldt penguin, whose average lifespan in captivity was 20 years. Grape-kun was an old man but was sprightly up until the day he had to be kept back for his health.

Sadly, Grape-kun couldn’t hold on and the morning of October 12, Tobu Zoo announced that Grape-kun had passed away. For a number of penguins in captivity, the cause of death is commonly respiratory illness leading to asphyxiation, but according to Tobu Zoo’s tweets, Grape-kun died peacefully with his beloved Hululu right next to him the entire time.

“And thank you to Hululu who watched over Grape-kun to the end,” Tobu Zoo said in their tweet.

Amidst all the sadness with Grape-kun’s passing, there was a bit of joy to be found. Tobu Zoo held a memorial where visitors left messages and flowers for Grape-kun. The most notable thing from the memorial was a board with a drawing of Hululu and Grape-kun. Kemono Friends creator Mine Yoshizaki drew Grape-kun and Hululu side by side with matching purple arm bands, almost like they were their wedding bands.

Months later, Tobu Zoo added the illustration as a cutout in the penguin enclosure – on the same rock where Hululu once stood. Now, both Grape-kun and Hululu stand atop the rock where they first met, together forever.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s December 2019 issue.

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