When groundhogs misbehave
Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 11:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 11:04 p.m.
NEW YORK — They’ve bitten their handlers, refused to budge from their beds and lost their shadow-casting jobs to potbellied pigs. And it turns out, not all groundhogs are really that good at predicting the weather.
Not even Bill Murray as a movie weatherman escaped a couple of nips from the furry rodents on the set of his popular “Groundhog Day” that put the annual shadow or no shadow ritual on a loop in 1993.
“Of course, the groundhog’s most glaring offense is that its legendary weather predictions are complete bunk,” said Linda Lombardi, a former zookeeper who has a blog and a book called “Animals Behaving Badly.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzed the forecasts of groundhog prognosticators from 1988 to 2010 and concluded there was no correlation between predictions and the length of winter weather in a given year.
Bad forecasting aside, history has a few ugly moments involving groundhog misbehavior on the big day, when designated groundhogs — and some notable surrogates — are supposed to step into the sun each Feb. 2 and predict six more weeks of winter, or not. Legend has it that if the groundhog sees his shadow, winter will last for six more weeks.
As always, the biggest Groundhog Day ruckus (Thursday will be the 126th) centers on prima donna Punxsutawney Phil, the seer of seers, sage of sages, prognosticator of prognosticators in Pennsylvania. But not even Phil has kept his pointy nose clean of misdeeds.
“Phil is not a pet. Phil is truly not as warm and cuddly as perhaps you would want him to be. Phil is, in fact, a wild animal,” said Mike Johnston, vice president of Phil’s Inner Circle in Punxsutawney, where Groundhog Day began.
“He will make his feelings known with a nip, maybe a couple of nips. If his handler continues to do things that displease him he’s likely to nail you,” Johnston said.
Sound familiar, Mayor Michael Bloomberg?
Charles G. Hogg, aka Staten Island Chuck, chomped on the mayor’s left index finger in 2009 when Bloomberg tried to coax him into the open using an ear of corn.
“We try not to speak of it,” said Mary Lee Montalvo, a spokeswoman for Chuck’s stomping ground, the Staten Island Zoo. “They have tried to make up. They’ve done a pretty good job. We’ve had no incidents since. I think Chuck thought the mayor was taking his food.”
Bloomberg decided on industrial-strength gloves the following year.
“I think they’re both feisty,” Montalvo said.
The mayor will be back by Chuck’s side Thursday for another go-round.
A handful of other groundhog forecasters have impeccable manners, including Gen. Beauregard Lee at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn, outside of Atlanta. The difference is nobody lays hands on the general, said Stefanie Reeves, his publicist.
“He comes out on his own, or he doesn’t. We don’t control him. He controls us,” she said.
The St. Louis Zoo gave up on Groundhog Day a year or so ago after their resident Lilly first refused to leave her burrow, then died of old age in 2009.
In the ‘80s, the zoo had Puck, who according to news accounts ran away right before Groundhog Day in 1989, after two years of faulty forecasts. A potbellied pig named Bacon was deputized in 1996, when the zoo ran out of groundhogs.
Groundhog Day was once a big deal in Niagara, Ky., where another potbellied pig, Arnold, was trotted out to make the prediction after the resident groundhog ate his way out of his enclosure.
In New Jersey, the Franklin Township area’s groundhog lodge disbanded after 15 years in 2005 after J.B., which stands for Just Because, went missing from his burrowing grounds on a farm.
The rodent hasn’t shown his shadow since.
On Thursday, up to 18,000 people are expected to gather at Gobbler’s Knob to see what Punxsutawney Phil has to say about winter.
And Johnston scoffed at the scientists who suggest the groundhog can’t predict the weather. Phil is never wrong, he said, because somewhere — and Phil doesn’t say where — winter is either going to end, or go on.
“He is not burdened with the necessity to be site-specific,” Johnston said. “If you question the science, perhaps you’ve missed the point.”
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