Groundhog Day: An Investigative Report
by Jonathan Zeller, 01/19/2010
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If Al Roker's weather report were wrong six times out of 10, he'd be out of a job. And yet, as the world approaches Groundhog Day, the planet's most famous weather-prediction event, many eyes will turn to Punxsutawney Phil, a Pennsylvania-based rodent whose accuracy rate is precisely that abysmal. If Phil's handlers announce that he's seen his shadow, there's a 61 percent chance that spring will arrive early—this despite claims from the groundhog's "Inner Circle" that his accuracy rate is 100 percent.
Phil's dominance of the American Groundhog Day scene—which was only strengthened by his appearance in the 1993 film named for the holiday—is perpetuated by a persistent, systematic campaign of disinformation carried out by the "Inner Circle." This secretive cabal is determined to preserve the Punxsutawney groundhog's power, even if it means deceiving millions of innocent people who need to know whether to bundle up over the next six weeks. Phil has, indeed, cast a long shadow—a shadow of lies.
Thankfully, there is a reliable groundhog: New York City's own Staten Island Chuck. Chuck's accuracy rate since his first appearance in 1981 is a commendable 77 percent, and he lives at one of NYC's greatest educational attractions, the Staten Island Zoo—so those who visit him can take in plenty of other enlightening wildlife while they're there.
To inform the masses and set the groundhog record straight, we spoke to a respected groundhog expert and assembled a myth-versus-fact report to debunk the most egregious elements of the legend.
This Groundhog Day, don't be fooled. Trust Staten Island Chuck, the only genuine weather-predicting groundhog.
Myth: Punxsutawney Phil's predictions are always correct.
Fact: According to stormfax.com, which uses weather data from the six weeks following Phil's predictions, Phil has been right only 39 percent of the time.
The Staten Island Zoo, meanwhile, reports a 77 percent success rate for Chuck.
Myth: The current Punxsutawney Phil has made every prediction at Gobbler's Knob. He is more than 120 years old and achieves eternal life by drinking a magical punch.
Fact: According to Peter Laline, the Staten Island Zoo's general curator, groundhogs live from six to 10 years in captivity. Anyone who claims a groundhog could live more than 10 times that long is "not being honest," he explains. "We're honest about what goes on here," he says of the Staten Island Zoo. "So the groundhogs over the past 29 years for us, they haven't been the same exact groundhog. That's just a fact of life. Animals live and they pass away." The current Staten Island Chuck is 4 years old, and there is no such thing as a magical punch.
Myth: Punxsutawney Phil tells the president of the "Inner Circle" whether or not he's seen his shadow in a language called "Groundhogese."
Fact: Animal communication has been the subject of much study and interest, but groundhogs lack the physical and mental capabilities to converse in the equivalent of a human language. According to Laline, "actually communicating with the groundhog is not something we do."
Laline explains that the mayor of New York City, when interpreting whether the groundhog sees his shadow, "studies his behavior." The true method by which the "Inner Circle" invents Punxsutawney Phil's prediction is unknown, as they continue to advance the implausible idea that he actually speaks to them.
If groundhogs could talk, nycgo.com would be the first to interview Chuck.
Visiting Staten Island Chuck
The wise weather watcher will seek meteorological guidance from Staten Island Chuck. Here's what to expect at the Staten Island Zoo this February 2:
Gates open at 7am. At 7:30, Staten Island Chuck makes his prediction (last year, he was aided by—and famously bit—Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and it remains to be seen if the mayor tries again in 2010). The free festivities include music and many more appearances by Chuck throughout the day. Those who want the VIP treatment can pay a nominal fee to eat breakfast with Chuck after his prediction. For more information, visit the Staten Island Zoo website.
Groundhog Day is also a perfect time for visitors to discover how much there is to see at the zoo during the colder months. "A lot of people think the zoo is closed during the winter," says Laline, "so it's interesting for them to come see animals from North America that live outside year-round." He is particularly fond of the red panda, whose coat really stands out when there's snow on the ground. Meanwhile, indoors, visitors can see "animals living in the tropical forest, Africa and representations of the desert in the reptile wing," says Laline.
All in all, a winter day at the Staten Island Zoo may be enough to make you wish for six more weeks of the season. Stick with Chuck, and you'll know whether those weeks are on the way—beyond a shadow of a doubt.