If the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have their way, Punxsutawney Phil could soon be out of a job and be replaced by a robot.
In an open letter to Bill Deeley, president of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, PETA proposes retiring the live groundhog that takes part in the annual Groundhog Day celebration and replacing it with an animatronic robot replica. Speaking for PETA and its "more than 2 million members," animals in entertainment specialist Gemma Vaughan stated that the ceremony is cruel, placing the "normally shy" animals that are used for the ceremony -- the groundhogs, that is -- in a stressful situation, in addition to denying them the opportunity to prepare for winter hibernation.
To be sure, Punxsutawney Phil works more than one day a year. He is available for social visits throughout the year from his home at the Punxsutawney Memorial Library, where he reportedly lives in his own burrow with his "wife," Phyllis.
In the open letter, Vaughan argues that animatronic animals have already been used and widely accepted by the public in dinosaur shows and in aquatic shows featuring robotic penguins and dolphins.
But would a robotic groundhog be as proficient as a live groundhog at being a prognosticator of future weather events? According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle, Phil has been 100 percent on target with his predictions. However, the National Climatic Data Center has reportedly placed the number of successful groundhog predictions closer to 39 percent.
The town of Punxsutawney may not be receptive to suggestions that they do away with the real Phil, seeing as how he has been the town’s weather predictor for coming up on 121 years, thanks to a magical elixir he sips every year, prolonging his life by another seven years (according to town lore).
While the open letter from PETA was directed to the town of Punxsutawney, Phil is by no means the only famous weather predicting groundhog. The town of Marion, Ohio has Buckeye Chuck, who has been predicting since 1970; Atlanta has General Beauregard Lee, who has received two honorary doctorates from the local universities; Staten Island, NY has Staten Island Chuck, the official groundhog meteorologist of New York City; and Wiarton, Ontario had Wiarton Willie, a relative newcomer who began prognosticating in the 1980s (he has been replaced by Wee Willie).
The tradition of regarding groundhogs as weather prophets dates back to 18th century Pennsylvania Germans, who may have been influenced by the old country belief that a hibernating animal, such as a bear or badger, would know how much longer to remain in hibernation based on whether it saw its shadow upon leaving its burrow.
To save you the trouble of looking it up: if the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If it does not see its shadow, spring will arrive soon. Of course, groundhogs can sometimes be wrong. In 1993, General Beauregard Lee predicted an early end to winter, but the Atlanta region was struck soon after by a paralyzing blizzard.