The New York Mayor’s Groundhog Day

What is it with the American fascination with Groundhogs? I should have said Groundhogs AKA a woodchuck, whistlepig or land-beaver. One of American poet, Robert Frost’s, best-loved odes was ‘A Drumlin Woodchuck’ in which he used the imagery of a Groundhog dug into a small ridge as a metaphor for emotional reticence. Guess what? It’s a rodent. Get over it.

Granted they are accomplished tree-climbers and excellent swimmers but what else do they do that’s worth anything? You ask any farmer and they’ll tell you. Groundhogs are a nuisance and a pest. They eat many commonly grown vegetables and their burrows can destroy farm ponds and undermine building foundations. As you might expect there is also a thriving business in their extermination.

Personally, I take a very Zen approach to animals big and small. Live and let live. Mind you I have three cats and two dogs so technically that makes me an animal lover. So you won’t hear war-like rhetoric from me such as down with all groundhogs.

What I can’t quite figure out, in some parts of the United States and Canada, Groundhogs have reached mythical status. There’s Wiarton Willie from Ontario, Jimmy the Groundhog from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and the most famous Groundhog in the world, Punxsutawney Phil from Punxsutawney Pennsylvania. Phil has a day dedicated to him, on the 2nd of February each year. This tradition dates back to 1877.

There is music and food and a select group called, wait for it, the inner circle, recognizable by their top hats and tuxedos, who are his specially appointed guardians. At one point, the festival moves from Punxsutawney to Phil’s temporary home at Gobbler’s Knob in a rural area two miles east of the town. This famous Groundhog emerges from hibernation. Some people believe, I am not one of them, that if he sees his shadow and returns to his burrow then there will be six more weeks of winter and no early spring. Punxsutawney Phil is so well-known, that even Hollywood paid homage. They made a movie called Groundhog Day, starring Phil and Bill Murray. And Punxsutawney Phil been on television making a guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey talk show.

American politicians love Groundhogs. Or, they just love the publicity that comes from being photographed with a Groundhog. They like kissing babies and holding Groundhogs except when they drop them. I’m talking about a Groundhog, not a baby. When that happens it makes headlines. Just ask the current Mayor of New York, Bill deBlasio. In his case it was a headline he didn’t really want or need.

Staten Island Zoo has a Groundhog Day for their Groundhog called Chuck. Just like Punxsutawney Phil, if Chuck sees his own shadow guess what? You’re in for another six weeks of winter. Some cynics claim this whole Staten Island Zoo Groundhog thing, is just a cheap rip off to cash in on the fame of Phil but I am not one of those cynics. Anyway, part of the ceremony involves the current Mayor of New York, holding the Groundhog. In 2009, Chuck, who clearly didn’t vote for Bloomberg, ended up biting the Mayor on the hand. Fast forward to 2014 and Mayor de Blasio, first time participant in the Staten Island Zoo Groundhog Day ceremony, now has that honour. But as a precaution, the Mayor is wearing heavy work gloves, which might go some of the way in explaining what happened next. Clearly the Mayor didn’t have a good hold of Chuck, who tumbled several feet to the ground. But there has been a dramatic and tragic postscript to the story. It was subsequently revealed that a week after the tumble, the Groundhog died.

Staten Island Zoo also stands accused of a cover up. They failed to notify the Mayor’s office of the fatality. In fact the story broke in the New York Post. It also turns out that the Groundhog who died, after slipping from the official Mayoral grasp, wasn’t Chuck after-all but a stand-in called Charlotte.

Needless to say it has all been a bit embarrassing for everyone concerned. The moral to this story, assuming there is one: If you are going to pick up a Groundhog don’t give it to a politician. They don’t have a firm grip on anything.