Groundhog Day celebration is a display of animal cruelty

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

My first Groundhog Day trek to Punxsutawney, Pa., took place in 2002. At the time, Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day spectacle seemed like the ultimate college road trip and as fun as the Bill Murray movie of the same name. But it wasn’t fun for the groundhog.

That year, Punxsutawney Phil allegedly saw his shadow, signifying that there would be six more weeks of winter instead of an early spring. As soon as the announcement was made, the crowd changed its rabid chants of “Phil! Phil! Phil!” to a chorus of boos. Few people seemed to care about the actual animal involved. Punxsutawney Phil was just an unlucky victim of the Groundhog Day legend and party.

When I returned to Punxsutawney on February 2, 2003, the rowdy thousands in attendance again booed the groundhog following the six-more-weeks announcement. In the 110 years on record, numerous groundhogs named Phil have allegedly seen their shadows on 96 occasions — more than 87 percent of the time. Booing the erstwhile hero is probably a near-annual occurrence.

Upon writing about my road trip later that day, I wanted to focus on the groundhog gathering’s fun atmosphere. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but mention the “animal abuse I won’t delve into.” Going to Punxsutawney a second time got me thinking about Phil’s side of things. For the sake of the holiday’s namesake, we must consider the groundhog’s role in this whole ordeal.

The groundhog of lore is about as real to most people as a unicorn; they probably wouldn’t hold their beloved dogs, cats, or other flesh-and-blood beings in the same regard. Jokes about killing and eating Punxsutawney Phil are common even among his biggest supposed admirers. In The Unofficial Groundhogese Dictionary — a compendium of groundhog legend — the groundhog is identified as “a delicious, large, rounded, sumptuous, readily eaten perennial herbivore.” Behind these jokes, there’s a disturbing theme: For many groundhog enthusiasts, Groundhog Day has nothing to do with concern for the groundhog.

It really doesn’t matter to Phil whether people are screaming with cheers or jeers at sunrise every February 2. The bottom line is that it’s terrifying for Phil to be hoisted up on stage in front of bright lights and thousands of loud spectators. “It is stressful for any wild animal,” said Stam Zervanos, a Penn State–Berks biology professor and an expert in groundhog physiology.

According to Zervanos, local groundhogs’ average “date of first emergence” is February 4, but the date “varies from year to year.” He said that it is “very unlikely” that a groundhog would come out of hibernation at exactly the same time each year.

Without a groundhog, Punxsutawney wouldn’t have a Groundhog Day. In order to sustain the tourist trap, Phil is held captive at Punxsutawney’s public library and kept on display for visitors to gawk at. As The Unofficial Groundhogese Dictionary notes, long-term captivity can cause groundhogs at the library’s Groundhog Zoo to experience “strange anti-social behavior” that is “similar to ‘Cabin Fever’ among humans.”

Punxsutawney Phil is not able to hibernate in the middle of the woods, and he doesn’t magically appear from a burrow at “Gobbler’s Knob” at the crack of dawn every Groundhog Day. And in December 2004, when he should have been hibernating in the middle of the woods with other groundhogs, Phil was taken to Washington, D.C., for a press conference!

Preventing animals from fulfilling their instinctual needs — such as hibernating in a natural setting during the time frame dictated by nature — is wrong. Forcing a wild animal to be at the center of a frightening, intimidating spectacle is likewise not acceptable. Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day celebration is a textbook case of exploitation.

The annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop in Brasstown, N.C., helped me put things in perspective. Each year in this small mountain town, several hundred local residents assemble as an opossum in a cage is dumped off the roof of Brasstown’s only gas station. As the confused and horrified animal descends, attendees cheer and count down the seconds ’til midnight. Allegedly, the animal is not physically harmed in the ordeal.

It’s obvious to most decent folks that the Possum Drop is a backward, inhumane event. Yet at its core, it’s similar to Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day celebration. Onlookers gather around, cheer on wild animals kept in captivity when they’re not booing or joking about eating them, and scare these furry little critters in an alien environment.

It may seem easier to oppose the Possum Drop than Punxsutawney’s Groundhog Day spectacle, as many of us have a soft spot for the Groundhog Day tradition. But tradition is no excuse for cruelty. We must do away with cruel traditions and instead choose compassionate events that bring people together without harming animals.

Michael Croland (H&SS ’05) runs the blog