By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun
6:45 PM EST, February 2, 2013
The only thing colder and stiffer than the crowd bundled up near a Washington fountain early Saturday morning was a woodchuck standing on its hind legs on a small wooden platform.
Potomac Phil, you see, is stuffed. Or more precisely, taxidermied.
When you can't get your hands on the real thing on Groundhog Day, you make do with what you have — dead or alive.
At the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, the forecasting task was assigned to Pteri, an Abyssinian ground hornbill bird, and Hobbes, a leopard.
In Williamsport, hard by the Potomac River in Washington County, the spotlight was shared by a white rat donated by a pet store and a grown man in a rat suit bought on Amazon.
But Allegany County's duties were carried out by the real deal, Western Maryland Murray, a groundhog (aka woodchuck) assisted by the mayors of Cumberland and Hagerstown.
Groundhog Day is perhaps the only day when polka tunes and the word prognostication co-exist. You can dance with your neighbor and wear a hat that looks like road kill. It's a day when Phil, the groundhog, pushes Phil, the TV doctor, and Phil, the PGA golfer, out of the top spot on Google.
In Punxsutawney, Pa., top-hatted men hauled Phil from his temporary burrow just before 7:30 a.m., as thousands watched at Gobbler's Knob. After consulting with the rodent, who appeared as stiff as Potomac Phil, the humans had their answer.
"And so ye faithful, there is no shadow to see, an early spring for you and me," decreed Bob Roberts, one of Phil's handlers.
About 232 miles away, Potomac Phil concurred.
At the Maryland Zoo, Pteri (pronounced Terry) emerged from her heated shelter, eyeballed spectators and strutted over to two cardboard boxes: One decorated with colorful paper flowers, the other with snowmen, and both sprinkled with live bugs.
"She's from central Africa and hates winter," said keeper Jen Kottyan, pausing. "Much like her caretakers."
With a disdainful flick of her foot-long curved bill, Pteri upended the snowmen and happily plucked bugs from the flowers as everyone cheered. Minutes later, Hobbes added the exclamation point by sinking his impressive fangs into the flowered box and shredding it in search of food.
"We guarantee our animals are alive," said keeper Carly Barron, in a playful dig at Potomac Phil.
The same boast could be made in Williamsport, where a white rat destined to be a meal for someone's pet snake became a hero when it did not cast a shadow.
"We pardoned it like the White House turkey," said Councilwoman Joan Knode, who came up with the idea of River Rat Day and bought the rat suit worn by a local musician.
Groundhog Day has been around since the 19th century, but became more popular after the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray as a weatherman forced to relive the same day until he becomes a kinder person.
Among Maryland's forecasters, only Western Maryland Murray saw her shadow in Cumberland.
A Mountain Murray misstep? Maybe.
But last year after Punxsutawney Phil forecast six more weeks of winter, Maryland got six of the warmest months on record.
It's enough to make you want a do-over.
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