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Groundhog quartet agrees on early spring

Prediction circumstances raise suspicions


February 2, 1997
Web posted at: 10:50 a.m EST

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PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Punxsutawney Phil, General Beauregard Lee, and Staten Island Chuck have reached consensus. It's an early spring, no doubt. (1.2 M/24 sec. QuickTime movie) movie icon

Even Buckeye Chuck, Ohio's official weather groundhog, concurred.

Groundhogs from New York to Georgia agreed on the weather for the next six weeks, but suspicions of a groundhog conspiracy cast doubts over the 111-year-old tradition of weather prognostication by rodent.

In Pennsylvania, Phil's prediction is written out long before he's dragged from his burrow. The General in Georgia is visibly forced out from his groundhog-sized antebellum mansion. And at the Staten Island Zoo, Chuck is revealed to be making his first prediction.

Eighty miles northeast of Pittsburgh, tens of thousands of college students gathered in pre-dawn darkness to await the prediction of Punxsutawney Phil, perhaps the most famous of this country's weather forecasting rodents.

The scene was impressive -- a large stump, with a small double door cut out of the front. A sign over the top: Phil.

The crowd erupted in cheers as the last strains of "The Star Spangled Banner" faded, followed by chants ... "We want Phil."


A group of men in top hats -- they call themselves "the Inner Circle" -- make their way through the crowd with a police escort and gather around the stump. One of them raps on Phil's door with a walking stick. They drag the poor unfortunate furry critter out and hold him up into the dawn ... light? Is it light? Does Phil see his shadow? Is spring on the way?

This year, the groundhog bit back, chomping the gloved thumb of his handler. Then they turned out a lights that illuminated the stage ... and read from the scroll prepared long before Phil involuntarily emerged and made his prediction.

Phil did not see his shadow.

How accurate is Phil?

A big sign behind the stump calls this "the weather capital of the world." But is it? Is this groundhog really the accurate weather prognosticator these men say he is?

Phil supposedly saw his shadow last year. But the shadow came from fireworks, as Punxsutawney was covered in clouds. Groundhog Club President Bud Dunkel says Phil communicates his prediction to the Inner Circle "telepathically."


"Did you ever have a spiritual passage of thought from someone that you just understood?" Dunkel said. "This transmission of thought is actually in his language, which we call 'groundhogese.' He doesn't actually say anything."

Very convenient. Only these men in tuxes understand what the groundhog says.

And get this ... the folks who paid to learn how to predict the weather say Phil's on a 50-50 tear in the last six years -- about as accurate as the average weather forecaster -- but other sources say the rodents get it right far less often, about 28 percent of the time.

Phil -- or perhaps more accurately, the Inner Circle -- was wrong in 1991, 1992, and 1995. But Groundhog Club members say Phil is NEVER wrong.

"Weather is in the eye of the beholder," Dunkel says.

Some meteorologists note warily that Phil's predictions seem to mirror the actual winter weather.

"I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings in the wonderful land of Punxsutawney," said one weather forecaster, "but I can predict what old Phil will say."

Georgia, New York and Ohio weigh in

But in the end, the nation's eyes turn to the rodent, not to local weather forecasters, at least on this day. But is Phil a willing participant? Or have his handlers coerced his participation? And is there a conspiracy of forced forecasting among the nation's groundhogs?

In Georgia, the lesser-known and no-more-accurate General Beauregard Lee appeared extremely reluctant to leave his custom-built burrow at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn. In fact, he appeared to have been pushed out -- his front feet visibly slid forward just before he lurched onto the porch.


He made a circuit of his yard, past a spraying fountain, and tried unsuccessfully to escape back inside his burrow, but the door had been closed behind him. Cameras clicked, and the General looked perturbed. He dug some holes, and ran around some more.

But in New York, a groundhog said to be the only "genuine" such creature in the city's five zoological parks has a better track record. Staten Island Chuck, at the Staten Island Zoo no less, has been on the money 13 of the last 15 years.


There's just one catch -- a careful investigation revealed that Chuck is not Chuck at all, at least not the Chuck who has been so very accurate with his weather forecasting. Zoo spokeswoman Lorraine Austin let slip that this Chuck was born only last year, and this is his first Groundhog Day.

Austin also revealed that groundhogs in New York are still hibernating -- no self-respecting groundhog trying to stay warm would be coming out of his burrow at this time of year.

"We're forcing the issue a little early," she said.

The other Chuck -- Buckeye Chuck in Marion, Ohio, where presumably groundhogs aren't quite ready to start sunbathing either -- missed his shadow at sunrise as well.

Circumstances surrounding groundhog weather forecasting are indeed mysterious, but there is no indication of a motive behind any conspiracy. And in all fairness, the little guys are pretty darn cute, even if somebody did wake 'em up early and drag 'em out to look for shadows.

So, the Chucks, Phil, and Beauregard say spring is just around the corner. Is it? Or is Groundhog Day just trying to compete with that other February holiday, Presidents' Day?


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