Woodchuck or groundhog, it's 6 more weeks of winter

February 03, 1994|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff Writer

On St. Patrick's Day, the saying goes, everyone's Irish.

At the Baltimore Zoo, the woodchucks made a similar transformation yesterday -- they were called groundhogs.

"They're really the same," zoo director Brian A. Rutledge said of the furry forecasters of spring known even less by their scientific name, Marmota monax.

But call them what you want -- it was just too cold yesterday for the varmints to stir from hibernation yesterday in their Children's Zoo burrows, much less see their shadows in the bright sunshine.

The nation's most celebrated groundhog made his annual Groundhog Day appearance in the western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney -- but not willingly.

More than 2,000 people showed up at Gobblers Knob to see Punxsutawney Phil pulled from his cozy, hay-filled burrow into the early morning chill of 2 degrees below zero.

Despite overcast skies and light snow, the famous rodent saw his shadow -- which by legend is supposed to scare it back into its burrow for six more weeks of winter. The crowd jeered.

At the Baltimore Zoo's Woodchuck Central, there was no crowd -- just a few news reporters and photographers, zoo officials and their costumed mascot, Wally-you-know-what.

Sad to relate, they all cast shadows.

Mr. Rutledge said that woodchuck is the proper name for groundhogs and readily acknowledged the one-day change was intended to cash in on Groundhog Day publicity.

At the Oklahoma City zoo, where he formerly worked, Mr. Rutledge said the staff was told to sculpt 20 pounds of ground pork for the occasion. When it was unveiled, the news crews were told, "Here's your ground hog."

The closest animals the zoo could offer as stand-ins for the sleeping woodchucks -- oops, groundhogs -- were close cousins in the ground squirrel family, prairie dogs.

With their burrows in the old main valley warmed by bright sunshine, several of the little rodents popped out of their holes. They hardly seemed to notice their shadows.

In Punxsutawney, where the holiday has become a huge media and tourist event, the groundhog forecast is said to be based on a German tradition brought to the Pennsylvania hills in 1887.

Mr. Rutledge, however, speculated that Groundhog Day must be a southern idea, because the animals are in a deep state of unconsciousness in cold climates -- their normal 101-degree body temperature down near 50 degrees, their respiration rate nearly stilled.

"It's a very practical system," he said. "In the fall they go crazy, running around and eating everything they can. If they woke up now, where would they get groceries?"

But set the alarm for 3:28 p.m. on March 20. Spring will arrive then -- guaranteed.

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