Warm weather lovers may not be the only ones who were disturbed this Feb. 2 when Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow.
Numerous conservation foundations have reported that they choose not to celebrate Groundhogs Day, stating that woodchucks, more commonly known as groundhogs, may not actually enjoy the celebration of what many ignorantly believe to be the best day of the year for these animals. In fact, this seemingly fun, harmless holiday can even put the animals in danger.
Willowbrook Wildlife Center, an animal rehabilitation center part of the DuPage County Forest Preserve District in Glen Ellyn, houses groundhog Woodford Charles III, more commonly known as Woodford. Wildlife Interpreter Nate Hambel, who often works with Woodford, said that the woodchuck has a request each Feb. 2.
“He asks only one thing of us on his special day: that we allow him to sleep in just a little bit longer,” said Hambel.
Groundhogs are herbivores, meaning their diet consists solely of vegetation and plant matter. During the cold winter months when limited food is available, herbivores must find other ways to survive. They often migrate, adjust their diet, or, in the case of woodchucks, enter a period of hibernation.
Hibernation is instinctive, triggered by colder weather and lower quantities of food. During hibernation, a woodchuck burrows and its body temperature drops to just 36 degrees. The animal’s heart rate falls to 10 beats per minute and it relies on its reserves of fat to sustain it through a long winter slumber.
Most male groundhogs rest until late February or early March; females and juveniles sleep a little longer. The animal sleeps all the way through with no disturbances, that is, unless the animal is rapidly startled awake and pulled from its den by something, such as a giant group of people who are dying to ask if he’s seen his shadow today.
The sudden startle that many groundhogs experience each Feb. 2 may be more upsetting than merely being woken up from an incredible nap. Hambel explained that, for the groundhog, the event can be incredibly perilous.
“When the rodent burrows into the ground, the metabolism , the heart rate, the breathing, and the overall body temperature all start to decrease. If that gets disrupted, then it can impact the health of that particular animal,” he said.
“We choose not to celebrate this particular day because we want to ensure that our animal has the best opportunity to be the healthiest that it can be,” he added.
Instead, the healthier way to halt hibernation is by letting nature to run its course and trusting the animal to slowly shake the snooze.
“If Woodford were woken up and forced out of hibernation, his blood flow, metabolism, and mental state would not be ready to handle the sudden change,” said Hambel. “When he wakes up slowly and on his own schedule, nature takes its normal course and prepares him for the transition.”
While hibernation isn’t perfect and can lead to respiratory distress, the Willowbrook staff use simple, non disruptive checks to monitor Woodford during his hibernation. During these checks, the staff move his bedding and listen to the animal. Groaning signifies to them that the groundhog is dreaming and doing well.
Ultimately, Hambel said that although humans love seeing groundhogs and hate seeing shadows on groundhog day, celebrating woodchucks on their own time is a better way to go.
“At Willowbrook, we look forward to Woodford waking up every spring from the burrow in his outdoor exhibit enclosure. He’s a favorite among our visitors, volunteers, and staff, but we’re willing to wait and let him do it on his own terms so he can stay as happy and healthy as possible,” he said.