For well over a century, the weather-predicting ritual on Feb. 2 has remained more or less the same: In the forests of western Pennsylvania, a group of bearded men in black top hats and suits lifts one very famous groundhog from a stump, high up into the air.
But ahead of Phil’s annual forecast on Sunday, the world’s largest animal rights organization is calling for the meteorological marmot to retire.
“Times change. Traditions evolve. It’s long overdue for Phil to be retired,” wrote Ingrid Newkirk, president and founder of PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, in a letter to Phil’s handlers. Instead of using a real animal, she said, the group should turn to artificial intelligence. It would renew interest in the event and allow the groundhog to dig, burrow and forage in peace.
“By creating an AI Phil, you could keep Punxsutawney at the center of Groundhog Day but in a much more progressive way,” she wrote. “Talk about taking your town’s annual tradition in a fresh and innovative direction!”
While at least nine other groundhogs around the country attempt to predict the weather via shadow, Phil is the most famous. Tens of thousands of visitors descend on Punxsutawney, a small town about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, to watch the ceremony every year.
The 1993 Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day” arguably cemented the fame of both Phil and his home, where the tradition has been carried on by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.
“For 134 years, we’ve done something right to keep attracting people and keep them coming,” club president Bill Deeley told The Washington Post on Tuesday night. “Why would they make a movie about it all if we did something wrong?”
Yet Tracy Reiman, PETA’s executive vice president, noted in a statement that “gentle, vulnerable groundhogs are not barometers."
“PETA is offering the club a win-win situation: Breathe life into a tired tradition and finally do right by a long-suffering animal,” she said.
Phil is no ordinary groundhog. To start, there’s his age: The average groundhog lives for four to six years, but Deeley insists that Phil is 134 years old. It’s the result of the mysterious elixir the groundhog drinks every summer, each gulp of which extends his life span by seven years. (The Post was unable to independently verify Phil’s age or the existence of said elixir.)
Then, there’s his schedule: While most woodchucks hibernate all winter, Phil remains semi-active, if a bit sleepy, in a temperature-controlled habitat attached to the Punxsutawney Memorial Library. When he’s not making the rounds of local schools, he and a female companion named Phyllis receive frequent visitors in preparation for his big day on Feb. 2.
“Being in close proximity to the public causes these animals great stress,” Newkirk said in the letter. “When Phil is dragged out of his hole and held up to flashing lights and crowds, he has no idea what’s happening.”
Deeley, however, said that Phil’s burrow undergoes an inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at least once a year. He’s fed a healthy but satisfying diet of kale, bananas and carrots. As The Post has previously reported, Phil also eats granola bars to keep his two front teeth from getting too sharp.
If he wasn’t eating well, Phil would not be able to maintain his rotund shape or his fluffy coat of fur, Deeley said. And if he didn’t love being the center of attention, he would not take in the crowds so stoically every year.
“If he’s so fearful of the cameras, if he’s so fearful of us and of the crowds, why doesn’t he make an attempt to run away?” Deeley said.
PETA’s proposal, however, is not only about saving the animals. It’s about bringing the long-standing tradition into the 21st century.
“Today’s young people are born into a world of terabytes, and to them, watching a nocturnal rodent being pulled from a fake hole isn’t even worthy of a text message,” wrote Newkirk, 70, who founded PETA four decades ago. “This is a generation whose members book rides on their smart phones and will never walk into a bank to deposit a check.”
In North Carolina, the organization successfully lobbied a small town to end its New Year’s Eve “possum drop,” in which a glass box containing a live marsupial is lowered to the ground as the clock strikes midnight. In Pennsylvania, though, PETA wants Groundhog Day to continue. Just not with an actual groundhog.
A robotic rodent could replicate the popularity of Sony’s artificial Aibo dog, Newkirk said, while AI technology affixed to the creature could “actually predict the weather” — perhaps more accurately than Phil.
The famous woodchuck has had a poor record of success when it comes to guessing the weather for February and March, according to a 2015 Post analysis, and his accuracy largely depends on what part of the country you are in.
Still, Deeley was unconvinced, just like crowds who might come across an electronically controlled bear or tiger at the zoo, he said.
“Imagine if he was an animated little creature outside where you put in a dollar and he waves at you,” Deeley said. “That’s not what people want to see, and that’s not what our community wants, either.”
Historically, the real-life groundhog has drawn broad support. As many as 30,000 people have descended on Punxsutawney in recent years, in what Phil himself called “the best all-night party in Pennsylvania,” according to the groundhog club’s website. (This year, above-average temperatures falling on a weekend date could mean record crowds at Gobbler’s Knob.)
“There has to be something that’s bringing people to this community year after year,” Deeley said. “I’ve never had a kid walk out or see a mother say, ‘That groundhog is terrible.‘”
The “inner circle,” as the groundhog club’s leadership is known, has received similar messages from PETA for at least the past five years, Deeley added, and the letter is no more than a way for PETA to get “public air.”
Every time, his group invites the activists to Punxsutawney for the ceremony, and the ceremony is still going.
Although he plans to retire as the president of the inner circle this year, he expects that little will change about the ceremony — least of all, the addition of a digitized groundhog.
“We hope that it’s timeless,” he said, “and that it keeps going on after I go to the big groundhog pie in the sky.”