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Happy Groundhog Day!

Feb 2, 2012 5:53 PM | 0 comments

Although it has been a bizarrely mild winter thus far, we would be remiss if we failed to seek the wisdom of nature's own weatherman, the groundhog. 

The news is already out that Staten Island Chuck didn't see his shadow, which ensures we will glide comfortably into spring.  Unless you subscribe to the Punxsutawney Phil forecast, which claims we're in for six weeks of real winter weather, the likes of which we have yet to see this year.  No need to worry, groundhogs have disagreed before.

Dissension among the rodent ranks, 1931.

It seems that the general logic behind the rodent-as-forecaster tradition is that animals (because they are presumably more in touch with nature) have a sixth sense about weather patterns, and so observing their hibernation patterns can give us an idea of what to expect; a cold winter or a mild one.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first mentioned these potentially prophetic powers of the groundhog in February of 1878, when it reprinted a piece from the Boston Post.  

"'An old trapper says this is going to be a very cold Winter.  Even the muskrats are building storm doors to their residences.'  People must indeed to hard pressed to exercise their superstitions if they will entertain prophecy second hand from a muskrat.  The amphibious wretch has no truth in him, and even his selfishness and possibly low cunning cannot supply the place of those intuitive endowments, those backward signalings of fate and futurity that distinguish some of the more honorable speciments of the rodent family, the ground hog for example."

It makes you wonder if perhaps the reporter was bitten by a muskrat at some point.  What else would explain his distrust of the species?

Perhaps it is simply the groundhog's photogenic cuteness, not to mention its apparent willingness to pose in glasses, that has ensured its high honor as weather prophet among its rodent bretheren (at least, we hope the often-bespectacled groundhog is posing willingly throughout the pages of the Eagle, the alternative being taxidermy).  Although the reigning celebrity groundhogs like our Staten Island Chuck and Punxsutawney Phil may enjoy a comfortable lifestyle (only one day of work a year!), the life of a forecasting groundhog does not appear to have been glamorous through the 20th century.  In 1933 the Eagle reported the untimely demise of a groundhog named Willie, who "was to have done his Groundhog Day stuff on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, where reporters, photographers and radio announcers were waiting to have him let out of a synthetic 'hole' to look for his shadow."  En route to his media debut, as Willie was carried in a cage along 52nd Avenue, the born burrower busted free and ran off, only to be hit by a passing car.  In 1951, the rodent prophet from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin -- which touted itself as the Ground Hog Capital of Wisconsin -- died from exposure.  Needless to say, winter continued unrelentingly that year.

The worst suffering endured by a groundhog may have come at the hands of New York's Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.  In February of 1935 the mayor declared that he would debunk the myth of groundhog prognostication once and for all.  To this end, he had a little pen with a burrow built in City Hall Park and borrowed a couple of groundhogs from the Central Park Zoo to occupy it.  A crowd of reporters and onlookers gathered on February 2nd to witness the forecast, which was mixed; one groundhog ran back into its hole, and the other stayed out "enjoy the scenery". 

The divided opinion between the two groundhogs would have proven the Mayor's point nicely, had it not been for allegations that came out the next day, February 3rd, accusing LaGuardia of poking the slumbering groundhogs with an electric needle to roust them from their cozy burrow and into the harsh light of flashing cameras.  The Mayor had announced that the prophesying would begin at high noon, and Eagle reporter Maxwell Hamilton smelled a rat when he noted LaGuardia's confidence in the time of the groundhogs' emergence.  Hamilton wrote, "Why, it's a known fact that in previous years groundhog editors had been on the job from 6 a.m. until sundown, uncertain as they were of the animal's debut.  And here was a fellow who would have them come out when he was darn good and ready." 

LaGuardia's groundhogs, happily cavorting of their own free will, or running for their lives from the sting of a hot poker?

If LaGuardia had indeed had the groundhog pen hotwired to his Mayoral desk, as Hamilton alleged, the entire results of the experiment had to be discounted.  Groundhogs acting under fear of electrocution could be excused for incorrectly assessing the weather conditions.  It is also entirely possible that the Eagle reporter trumped up the conspiracy theory to squeeze a bit more copy out of an already tired annual ritual. 

Still and all, it doesn't take a long memory to recall another mayor's troubled relationship with the Marmot monax.  After being bitten on the finger by a groundhog in 2009, Mayor Bloomberg will most likely never sidle up to the creature the way this United Airlines flight attendent did in this 1954 meet-cute between beauty and beast.

Indeed, our mayor would more likely appreciate the humor of Benny Zame, below, a Brooklyn butcher who in 1950 showed that he, for one, wasn't touting the revered groundhog as any kind of sacred cow.  More like a delectable pig.