Across the state of Pennsylvania, the odds of an early spring depend upon a tiny town 90 minutes northeast of Pittsburgh, and a large ground squirrel named Phil.
Just this week, Phil emerged from his tree stump in Punxsutawny, PA, and after a brief conversation, was lifted high above a crowd by a man wearing a black trench coat, bowtie and black top hat. “Spring it’ll be early, it’s a certainty,” the man announced. At this, the crowd erupted into cheers.
This past summer, in State College, PA, which is just about 45 minutes from Punxsutawny, I had the honor of meeting Punxsutawny Phil the groundhog.
Phil had been invited to speak at the Pennsylvania State Mayors Association’s annual meeting as a keynote speaker.
Each year, this association of nearly 100 mayors of small towns across Pennsylvania meets. My husband is one of those mayors. Spouses are invited, so the conference becomes a mini vacation, as it takes place over a weekend in July in a different town each year, and includes plenty of free time.
On the second night of the conference, Phil arrived, and was, indeed, the keynote speaker. He was carried in a large, round, glass case with no lid. The words “Punxsutawny Phil – www.GROUNDHOG.org” were transcribed across the glass in black lettering. A man wearing heavy-duty black gloves and a black top hat carried the case.
Phil was larger than I’d pictured, about the 5 times the size of a guinea pig. He sat hunched over in the straw, occasionally glanced at the crowd standing at their dining tables, and steadily munched on something, although I couldn’t tell what it was because he had two large front teeth that blocked my view. His fur was brown, thick and spiky, like a broom.
His handler placed the case on a long card table at the front of the room, just next to the podium.
No announcement had been made, but a line had started to form, and I realized that we would all have the chance to “meet” Phil.
The first couple hesitantly approached the case. The handler, standing behind it, reached into the case, grabbed Phil with both hands like someone would grab a steering wheel, and lifted him in the air, eventually balancing him on both of this hands and forearms. Not far behind the first couple, I peered around to get a closer look at this large rodent. Phil rested on one of the handler’s forearms, curling around it the way a caterpillar clings to a leaf. He had long, black, hands, kind of like a koala’s, and they had slanted nails at the end that looked very sharp. His two front teeth were constantly moving up and down, even though he actually wasn’t chewing anything.
“Groundhogs like to burrow, it’s really in their nature. Trust me, he’d much rather be digging and chewing right now,” I heard the handler say.
The handler continued by sharing that Phil only had a short window of time outside of his cage before he would turn aggressive.
The first couple waved goodbye to Phil, and the second couple, just a few ahead of my husband and I, approached. Several selfies and group photos later, it was our turn to meet Phil.
“Ow!” The handler was now shifting Phil back and forth between his forearms and shouting this, so it didn’t look as if we had much time. Phil was, as promised, biting him. He’d sink his two, large front teeth, which were still moving, into the handler’s finger, we would hear “ow” and then Phil would be shifted to the handler’s other arm. The handler was still wearing the heavy-duty gloves, which were a thick, black, padded suede, so that meant that Phil’s two front teeth were sharp enough to break through. Phil’s hands were gripping the handler’s arm.
His teeth still moving, we grabbed a few quick photos in between bites.
I wasn’t expecting this aggression. Growing up, I’d read about Phil in the newspapers, had watched him being lifted high above a crowd on the evening news every Groundhog Day. He’d always looked so cute, so friendly, so cuddly.
“Groundhogs are not pets,” the handler reminded our group, interrupting my thoughts as someone, ironically, asked to hold him.
“He’s got about a minute left, and then I’m going to have to put him back in his cage,” the handler said. He smiled while he said these things, and genuinely appeared as if he liked his role. He didn’t appear as if he was in pain, but I’d lost track of how many times I’d seen Phil bite his fingers.
A few people in the crowd waved as the handler lifted Phil into the glass case. Following that, he placed a carrot in the case.
While Phil safely dug into the carrot, the President of the Punxsutawny Area Chamber of Commerce ascended the podium, and we learned all about the history of this weather predictor.
Cheers to an early spring!