- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

When Punxsutawney Phil toddles forth to seek his shadow and predict winter’s longevity this morning, the celebrated groundhog will have much competition.

There are more than 25 other assorted groundhogs also offering opinions today, not to mention one upstart pig and a llama with weather on their minds.

General Beauregard Lee of Georgia, Pierre C. Shadeaux of Louisiana, Pee Wee of Vermont, French Creek Freddie of Nebraska and Buckeye Chuck of Ohio are among the many contenders for alpha-groundhog — poised to predict if the nation must endure six weeks more of winter or an early spring.

To the north, Wiarton Willie and Chilly Charlie of Ontario, Balzac Billie of Alberta and Shubenacadie Sam of Nova Scotia also are chittering in anticipation.

But the good folks of Punxsutawney, Pa. — where famed Phil has been predicting for more than 118 years — will have none of it.

“Phil is the one and only true weather-prognosticating groundhog. The others are just imposters,” said Alan Freed of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, which organizes the annual showcase of groundhog, shadow and human hubbub.

Few can fault the Punxsutawneyites. Phil has become, well, larger than life.

This year, Groundhog Day has swelled into six days of celebration. Gates to “Gobbler’s Knob,” where Phil lurks before his big moment, open today at 3 a.m. to accommodate thousands of visitors and the national press. Phil has 46 official sponsors, a namesake Beanie Baby and a wedding chapel — Phil’s Wedding Chapel, of course, where the town mayor will marry happy couples until midafternoon.

“Well, you’ve got to pay homage to Phil. He was the first. But he’s wrong most of the time. Besides, weather is different around the country, so we need separate opinions,” said Rich Hosek of California-based Groundhogs Central, which tracks would-be Phils, offers a fan Web site (www.groundhogsday.com) and sells groundhog-ian merchandise of all kinds.

“Groundhog Day is a fine celebration. And that’s our mission — to help people celebrate. And we’ve made it truly American. We’ve commercialized it,” Mr. Hosek quipped.

Meanwhile, the other groundhogs are standing by — from their homes in zoos, museums, public parks and private farms.

“Staten Island Chuck is the most famous and the most accurate in the nation. He’s been right 21 out of 24 years. So there,” said John Caltabiano, director of the Staten Island Zoo, which has been home to two generations of weather-predicting groundhogs.

“Chuck has been interviewing with the press all week and prancing around for the cameras. And he’s ready to make yet another accurate prediction,” Mr. Caltabiano said.

A chubby General Beauregard Lee will lead the 25th National Groundhog Day Celebration at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn, Ga., emerging from his Weathering Heights mansion after being summoned by an antique bell.

“He’s been resting up all week. He’s ready,” said ranch spokesman Codi Reeves, who noted that many of his neighbors take off work to see 15-pound General Beau complete his mission.

There has been a personnel change up in Michigan, where Mr. Prozac — a llama — has been “acting” groundhog at Windstar Farm, pinch-hitting for Noah John, a one-eyed groundhog who had predicted the weather for dozens of visiting school groups for years.

“Our beloved Noah died in 2002, so Mr. Prozac took his place. But for this year’s festivities, we’ve rented a groundhog for $100 from a nature preserve,” handler Mark Harries said. “Mr. Prozac is now on emeritus status.”

Some groundhogs have official status. Sir Walter Wally of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh will lead a “statewide celebration,” according to the museum, complete with educational materials for local schools on weather and climate.

There has been some drama in recent years with Wiarton Willie of Ontario, Canada — mascot of the town of the same name and centerpiece of a festival that generates close to $1 million for the area. Willie is suspected of killing his two understudies in the den that they shared two years ago, and his keeper accused of covering up the unsolved crime, according to a report from Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

But the festival continues nevertheless, just as it has since 1956, when a critter named “Muldune” did the honors.

Then there’s “Groundhawg’s Day” in Lexington, Ky., which favors the culinary over the meteorological. “L’il Bit,” a 65-pound pot-bellied pig, will emerge from the city’s historic old City Barbecue building at 7:30 a.m. today, watch for her shadow and snort out her prediction.

“She’s raring to go,” said Liz Parham of Uptown Lexington, the local civic group that organizes the event meant to celebrate “the heritage of barbecue.”

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