The folks at the DuPage County, Ill., Forest Preserve District don't come right out and say they oppose Groundhog Day.
The folks at the DuPage County, Ill., Forest Preserve District don't come right out and say they oppose Groundhog Day. Still, they have a definitive position, and it leans toward killjoy.
They don't celebrate that whimsical, pseudo-holiday of Feb. 2. The district contends that the pudgy rodents, also known as woodchucks — or whistle-pigs in the South — need uninterrupted hibernation from early November through February and into March.
"And they could count on the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County to support their right to hibernate in peace," the district stated in a release notifying the world of its position on the issue.
Sleep soundly tonight. Groundhog rights are preserved and protected.
Forest Preserve District animal ecologist Dan Thompson maintains he is not a killjoy, merely a nature enthusiast trying to seize a teachable moment.
"During hibernation, a groundhog's heartbeat, metabolism and respiration slow," Thompson said, "allowing it to live on its body fat. If a groundhog is awakened from hibernation too early, it might not have the energy to find food and survive in cold winter temperatures."
It is true, contends Ben Hughes, handler of celebrity groundhog Punxsutawney Phil of east central Pennsylvania, that the animals hibernate deep into February and often into March in northern states. But "hibernation is not like Sleeping Beauty," he said.
"It's like when we have the flu," Hughes said of the groundhogs' slowed internal workings. "They do move around. They do come out of their resting spaces. They do eat."
They don't, however, predict the weather very accurately. The legendary belief that winter will linger for another six weeks if the groundhog sees his shadow on Feb. 2 — or that spring will arrive early if the animal fails to see its shadow on that date — is a risky bet.
A National Climatic Data Center analysis of Punxsutawney Phil's meteorological prescience from 1988-2005 shows a highly erratic record of hits and misses. In 1988, he did not see his shadow and national average temperatures were below normal for February. The next year, he did see his shadow and February temperatures were below normal.
At least DuPage County is taking a stand. Other places try to finesse the issue.
For Brookfield Zoo's Groundhog Day celebration, zoo chefs prepare sweet potato cakes to lure Cloudy and Tumbleweed from their burrow at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 2. Lincoln Park Zoo doesn't have a groundhog.
Milwaukee County Zoo went without a Groundhog Day celebration after 2007, when its groundhog died, zoo spokeswoman Jennifer Diliberti said. That absence will end this year, when Wynter, a groundhog delivered in October from a museum in Ohio, will be the center of attention.
"Wynter is out and about right now," Diliberti said in late January. "So, it's kind of an easy thing."
Management at the St. Louis Zoo takes a similarly pragmatic approach.
"The fact that we're not having a Groundhog Day celebration is not really a stand we're taking so much as it is that we have a really cranky groundhog who doesn't like to be woken up," said Janet Powell, public relations director of the St. Louis Zoo.
That would be Lilly, who, a manager at the children's zoo said, "is just not one that we can handle safely for her or for us."
It is also important to note that the closely monitored, controlled reality surrounding Punxatawney Phil, Cloudy, Tumbleweed, Wynter and Lilly is much more comfortable than the dodgy reality of groundhogs in the wild. Doubtful, for example, that Brookfield Zoo would run out of sweet potato cakes.
The National Wildlife Federation, which calls itself "America's largest conservation organization," steps back from the controversy with sage perspective.
"I don't think it's something that regular people are doing, anyway," federation naturalist David Mizejewski said of humans rousting groundhogs in February. "So, I'm not too worried that it's going to encourage bad people behavior."
More disconcerting perhaps is this startling news from Mizejewski: Male groundhogs are players, gallingly, while they should be hibernating soundly with their soul mates.
After about 90 days of hibernation, often in early February, the males wake up, Mizejewski said, and start trolling the neighborhood burrows for what the naturalist called "hotties." The male will spend a purely platonic night or two with like-minded females, then return to his original burrow and resume sleeping as if nothing had happened, Mizejewski said.
When widespread groundhog wakeup occurs in the spring, the males meet again with the "hotties" and begin conjugal relations, Mizejewski said.
And, no, there's no truth to the legend that if the male groundhog saw his shadow on Feb. 2, he endures six weeks without those relations, Mizejewski said.
Would serve them right, though, the cheating chuckers