The mayor of a small Ontario town defended its decision to keep a famous weather-prognosticating groundhog's death a secret for about a year, saying she was protecting the "Wiarton Willie brand."
Janice Jackson, the mayor of the town of South Bruce Peninsula, said the albino rodent died "quite a while before the last Groundhog Day," but didn't specify when, other than it was before its typical hibernation period in 2020.
"Wiarton Willie is everything to Wiarton and South Bruce Peninsula," Jackson told The Canadian Press in an interview on Thursday.
The town publicly acknowledged Willie's death this week – months after he did not make an appearance on Groundhog Day – and said a brown groundhog will step into his role next year.
Wiarton Willie is an albino groundhog who fictitiously predicts whether spring comes early or not depending on if he "sees" his shadow each Groundhog Day. The February festival in Wiarton, a community of about 2,000 residents, is a major tourist attraction for the area.
Jackson said the town wanted to have an albino groundhog "understudy" in hand before announcing Willie's death and "passing the crown" to the new Willie.
But they never found one.
"Timing is everything," Jackson said.
"Wiarton Willie has put us on the international map and we're very, very protective of the Wiarton Willie brand. And we were faced with a conundrum, clearly one that took us by surprise, and we had to plot a path forward the best way that we could to protect our town."
Willie died in his sleep of an abscessed tooth, Jackson said.
The town made a conscious decision to keep the death under wraps, Jackson said, hopeful they could find a replacement. Jackson said they got word out to zoos and trappers across Canada and the United States. But they ran out of time – groundhogs hole up for the winter while they hibernate.
"We just couldn't come up with a white groundhog," she said.
"As soon as our window of opportunity closed, then we let the public know because the last thing we want to do is come forward on prediction morning with the brown groundhog when Wiarton Willie is the only albino prognosticator in the world – and we didn't want to do that to our community."
Rumours of Willie's death had swirled since last Groundhog Day after the town released a video that showed the mayor tossing a fur hat and making the annual prediction about how much longer winter would last, without the animal in sight. There was no in-person event due to the pandemic. The Canadian Press asked repeatedly about Willie's whereabouts that day, but the town did not answer.
When asked if she could have told the public earlier, Jackson simply said "no."
When the last Willie died in 2017, his understudy was waiting in the wings. So the town held a prompt funeral while "passing the torch" to the new Willie in front of hundreds at Blue Water Park next to the Wiarton Willie statue.
The town infamously kept another Willie death a secret in 1999 for about a week until Groundhog Day. His caretaker, Sam Brouwer, discovered that Willie froze to death. The backup Willie had died several months earlier, so they were without a white groundhog.
The groundhog committee decided to host a funeral for Willie, and placed a previously dead and stuffed white groundhog in a casket and unveiled it on Groundhog Day, drawing sobs from children in the audience.
The mayor said she hopes the recent publicity of Willie's death will spark sightings of albino groundhogs all over in the world so they can "adopt" another white rodent, but admitted the timing now makes it nearly impossible to find a white groundhog in time for Groundhog Day.
"They disappear till the spring, unfortunately," she said.
Next year's Groundhog Day events in early February 2022 will be held in person.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2021.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press