A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Punxsutawney Phil’s Alter Ego

Will the famous groundhog go animatronic?

It all started in Germany, thousands of years ago, and long before snow plows and satellite weather forecasting. People wanted to know whether this would be a long winter. And the best way to get answers to most things or any importance was to ask an animal.

Badgers would often emerge from their winter dens for a quick look-around at the beginning of February, and if they didn’t go scurrying back for a few more weeks of snooze-time, this suggested to people that winter might be a bit shorter. And so grew up the tradition that if a badger saw his shadow when he emerged (i.e. the sun was shining), winter would not be long-lived.

Germans who came to Pennsylvania brought their tradition, but couldn’t find many badgers. Still, there were plenty of groundhogs, and they’ve been substituting for badgers ever since.

King Phil

The official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, lives at Gobbler’s Knob near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where he does more for tourism than for weather forecasting, still attracting thousands of visitors for various Groundhog Day events organized by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

The first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob was made on February 2, 1887, where officials will tell you that Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) was named after King Phillip.

They also proclaim that the same groundhog, now well over 100 years old, is the same one making his appearance every year.

PETA steps in

Whether or not groundhogs enjoy being roused from slumber, held up by city officials in official garb, and then presented to flashing cameras, is probably easier to predict than the weather. No surprise, then, that last year the animal rights group PETA called for an end to the use of real groundhogs.

PETA went on to issue a challenge: Invent an electronic replacement for Punxsutawney Phil and free the living prognosticator from a life of camera flashes, booming loudspeakers and bad jokes on morning TV.

The plea was ridiculed by a slightly alarmed Groundhog Club, but not by a group of students at Lafayette College, who decided to try their hand at building an electronic groundhog.

The result looked as much like a groundhog as “rabbit ears” look like rabbit ears. But the idea was to make a device that could detect its own shadow. And at that the students succeeded.

Last week, they demonstrated their last surviving electronic groundhog – the others had long been taken apart for some other new invention.

Propping a stuffed groundhog in front of a white poster board, senior Justin Bunnell switched on the machine’s camera and oscilloscope. The idea is that the tiny computer in the electronic groundhog takes part of the camera image, scans it, and then pivots toward the dark part of the image (the shadow). If the image is as dark as the shadow, a light flashes — and you’ve got six more weeks of winter.

The Groundhog Club is not planning to swap out the “real” Punxsutawney Phil for a possibly more accurate electronic version, so you can accurately predict that PETA will have a statement for them on Groundhog Day.