The announcement that the groundhog Fred la Marmotte had died, on the day residents in a Quebec town were set to mark his winter prediction, touched off not just a somber Groundhog Day for his constituents but a split between his colleagues.
“This year, things will be done differently,” said Roberto Blondin, who leads the event’s organizing committee. “I’m announcing the death of Fred. It’s sadly true.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), the country’s leading broadcaster, called Fred’s death “sudden.” But even though accounts vary, he appears to have actually met or exceeded his species’ expected lifespan.
According to the CBC, Blondin said discovered Fred lifeless while trying to wake him for his annual prediction and found “no vital signs.” He estimated that Fred died while hibernating and said he was nine years old.
But a spokesperson for the event, Renée Laurendeau, told the Montreal Gazette newspaper that Fred was “at least 14 years old” when he died.
“That’s pretty old for a groundhog,” she added.
Expert findings support her assessment; the Indiana Department of National Resources (IDNR) and the pest control company Terminix, for example, both list the typical groundhog lifespan at around 3 years. A factsheet published by the PBS program Nature in 2020 noted that in captivity, groundhogs “reportedly live up to 14 years.”
Following news of Phil’s death, a child attending the event for him was reportedly tapped to take his place for the day with the use of a stuffed toy groundhog. As the Globe and Mail reported, the death of a groundhog during their service is not unprecedented:
On Groundhog Day 1999, children burst into tears when Wiarton Willie’s handlers announced the groundhog had died two days before. In his place, a white groundhog they claimed to be Willie was brought out in a tiny pine coffin, holding a carrot.
The scene made international headlines but the mayor of the Town of South Bruce Peninsula had to later admit the stuffed groundhog in the casket was not, in fact, Willie, but a stand-in.
In 2021, however, leaders in the town of Wiarton, Ontario were caught in a cover-up:
The groundhog was nowhere to be seen for the virtual festivities on the decisive morning – the town released a video that showed the mayor tossing a fur hat and making the annual prediction. There was no in-person event due to the pandemic.
It took nine months before the town acknowledged the white-furred albino rodent had died.
The current Wiarton Willie (reportedly emigrated into the country from Ohio, U.S.A.) did not see his shadow, meaning per tradition that he predicted an end to winter weather sooner rather than later; but as Global News reported, at least two prognosticating animals in Nova Scotia — Lucy the Lobster in Barrington and Shubenacadie Sam “more than 300 kilometers away” — forecast an additional six weeks of winter.
The industry leader for weather-divining animals, Punxsutawney Phil of Groundhog Day fame, reportedly predicted a late winter as well.