This Groundhog Day was not just the occasion for the shortest snowstorm in Chattanooga’s history, but also a day of national recognition for a certain furry resident of the Tennessee Aquarium.
Chattanooga Chuck, the 3-year-old groundhog, earned the No. 5 spot on The Weather Channel’s “Top 11 Groundhogs to Watch.”
The famed Punxsutawney Phil ranked at No. 1, followed by Staten Island Chuck; Lilburn, Ga.’s Gen. Beauregard Lee; Dunkirk Dave from Dunkirk, N.Y.; and Chattanooga’s own Marmota monax.
After announcing his prediction of an early spring and hosting a meet and greet with a roomful of families, Chuck sat down with Nooga.com to talk shop, his favorite foods and how much he is still like his wild brethren.
How did you come to live at the Tennessee Aquarium?
I was born in Pennsylvania at the Keystone Exotics breeder facility. I, unfortunately, am of no relation to my colleague, Phil, but we have a professional relationship, as many of us groundhog meteorologists do.
I was 6 weeks old when I got to Chattanooga, just a little fur ball venturing south for the first time. Luckily, my handler, Susie Grant, who is a senior educator at the aquarium, was there to hold my hand from day one. I’ve grown up a bit, but I still like to play with Susie. She understands how smart I am and is always challenging me when we do our training.
Where do you currently reside?
I live in the wet lab. It’s a special place for the animals that interact with people in the Ranger Rick Gallery. The wet lab is a super-relaxed place since we have the additional stress of lots of human contact.
I like meeting the fans, but it can get a little harry with all those camera flashes and crowds of kids and parents. I definitely know what the Biebs feels like.
My cage is outfitted with multiple layers, so there are lots of ramps for me to run up and down and places to snuggle up in a corner.
What is a typical day like for you?
During the winter months, I am a pretty mellow guy. Even though I haven’t lived in the wild, my biological clock is still very strong. When the weather is colder, I slow down for a kind of semi-hibernation. It takes me longer to wake up in the morning-getting up usually around 9 or 9:30 a.m.-and I am not as much of a food nut as I am in the warmer months. I take the time to enjoy a good midday nap and sleep from late afternoon until the next morning.
If I were in the wild, my hibernation schedule would be one long, continuous sleep in my burrow for about three months, but I really like seeing Susie and the kids in the Ranger Rick Gallery, so I work some awake time into my winter schedule.
Around the middle of February, my routine starts to change a little bit, and by the spring and summer, I am one energetic mammal. They don’t call groundhogs “whistle-pigs” for nothing. I get up and moving around by 8 a.m. and have an exercise routine of running the ramps. Susie says I’m almost like a puppy or a kitten.
Susie and I do a lot of training. We work on running through cardboard boxes and climbing up a series of logs. I also spend a lot of time training with different handlers so that I get used to interacting with other educators besides Susie.
As Chattanooga’s favorite groundhog, what public obligations do you have?
I do have an appearance schedule to maintain. For the most part, I interact with visitors of all ages in the Ranger Rick Gallery.
My fellow animal ambassadors and myself help people learn about our ecological roles in the wilderness. It’s especially informative in my case since I am a native of the Southeast region.
I typically demonstrate natural behaviors, like running through the boxes to mimic what I would do in a burrow. I had my trusty weatherboard with me for Groundhog Day, which, of course, is a staple wall hanging in every groundhog’s den.
Susie is so nice about giving me treats when we work together. When it’s cool outside, my taste buds are more inclined toward ripe bananas-but only the really ripe ones with the peel on. During the summer, I’m partial to sweet potatoes, kale and broccoli.
On Groundhog Day, how do you make your prediction?
I am a team player, so even though the national observance is called Groundhog Day, I consult with my friends at the aquarium. We like to be very thorough in our forecasting, and you’d be surprised who has a talent for the meteorological trade.
First, I check in with Blinky the owl and then the trout. I also like to consult with the frog-if they croak three times in a row, it’s a short winter for sure. Even the butterflies and the stingrays can give me accurate feedback.
Ultimately, it is up to me to make the big announcement. This year, the news is good because we are in for an early spring.
Updated @ 3:52 p.m. on 2/4/13 to correct a typographical error.