The Milwaukee County Zoo is using a polar bear instead of a groundhog on Groundhog Day because its groundhog died last year. Wochit
A new twist. That's what the Milwaukee County Zoo says it has planned for Groundhog Day this year.
What they mean is a whole new animal. Playing the part of the groundhog will be Snow Lilly, an elderly polar bear.
She is furry and adorable and fully capable of casting a shadow, or not. But a day named for groundhogs should probably stick with that species. Otherwise we might as well start celebrating July 4th on the 10th.
It doesn't really matter, of course. We're already being asked to believe that relative cloudiness at a particular moment on Feb. 2 can predict if our overly long winter will be overly longer.
So the shadow of any animal, person, bush or building will work. The zoo could roll out one of its Mold-A-Rama machines to do the honors.
What happened was that the zoo's groundhog-in-residence, Wynter, died of natural causes about a month after making last year's prediction. Fully sanctioned prognosticating groundhogs are harder to find than you might think, so a bit of brainstorming led to using the zoo's only polar bear in its place.
They're trying to make it educational and fun so that the school kids won't cry over the rodent they hoped to see. There will be polar bear crafts and polar bear cookies and talks about how climate change affects Snow Lilly's free-range sisters and brothers.
Also, the zoo points out that historically bears were once used for this old German celebration at the roughly halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Presumably, they weren't calling it Groundhog Day back then.
For the past 37 years, the zoo's groundhog for the big day has been a real groundhog, except for 2011 when a blizzard forced the event to be canceled. The use of a different animal is not without precedent. The Maryland Zoo has called on its leopard and elephant for the task.
The plan for Friday is to lock Snow Lilly in her den overnight so she'll be eager to emerge at 10:30 a.m. in her front yard, with fish and peanut butter treats used as an added incentive. Beth Rich, deputy zoo director of animal management and health, will make the call on whether a shadow was cast.
Sun Prairie is actually Wisconsin's Groundhog Day capital. I asked Mayor Paul Esser what he thinks of Milwaukee using a bear.
"Oh my, well, OK," he said. "That's a leap. Nobody is going to pet that guy."
His city is still recovering from the groundhog debacle of 2015 when Jimmy bit then-Mayor Jonathan Freund on the ear during the ceremony. That critter has since escaped into the wild, and Freund was voted out of office two weeks later.
Now a rent-a-groundhog from the Wilderness Walk zoo in Hayward arrives with a licensed handler, and any shadows it throws are inside a cage. Esser sometimes wonders aloud whether it would be better to just use a stuffed groundhog or someone dressed in a costume, though he realizes that's heresy to some.
Milwaukee's Punxsutawney-esque polar bear is a one and done, said Jennifer Diliberti-Shea, the zoo's public relations coordinator. That's the plan anyway. Rehab center groundhogs are in short supply because the goal is always to set them free.
"Our animal staff is on the lookout for such a groundhog, and it is our hope we'll resume with a groundhog for the prediction next year," she said.
That's good. Because an animal with polar in its name likely is not pulling for an early spring.
Contact Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or email@example.com. Connect with my public page at Facebook.com/Journalist.Jim.Stingl