Everything that could’ve gone wrong arguably did during the fateful Groundhog Day celebration at the Staten Island Zoo in 2014.

Known for his dislike of politicians, the beloved Staten Island Chuck was replaced by Charlotte the groundhog in hopes that she wouldn’t bite then-New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D). When nudged out of her tiny log cabin, Charlotte scurried away from her shadow, signifying the possibility of six more weeks of winter. And if that wasn’t a bummer enough, the creature tumbled down several feet when the mayor tried to hold her — and died a week later.

Charlotte’s passing was nothing short of dramatic. After the New York Post uncovered the rodents’ switcheroo and the zoo’s alleged attempts to keep the death quiet, conspiracy theories about suspected foul play swirled on social media under #Groundhoggate and #Groundhoghazi. It became the fuel for memes, the punchline of jokes and the subject of television segments.

Nine years later, de Blasio has some thoughts: “Why would you want an elected official to hold a groundhog? I don’t know anything about holding groundhogs. So the whole thing is just insane,” he told New York Magazine’s Intelligencer in an interview published Wednesday, one day before he was ordered to pay the city of New York almost $320,000, plus a $155,000 fine, for using police as personal security while he was campaigning for president in 2019.

In the wide-ranging interview, de Blasio said he regretted dropping the animal and explained how the combination of morning grogginess and inexperience with groundhogs led to Charlotte’s fall.

“I go there and it’s seven in the morning, which means my motor skills are not at their best,” de Blasio said. “I put on these gloves, and they’re like, ‘Here’s a groundhog.’”

Video from the event shows de Blasio in clunky orange gloves — a safety measure put in place after Staten Island Chuck bit former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg (D) in 2009. As the groundhog headed back toward the enclosure after seeing her shadow, a handler grabbed Charlotte and plopped her into de Blasio’s hands.

The rodent, however, had other plans. She shimmied out of de Blasio’s grasp, climbed onto his arm and fell head first. A chorus of gasps and screams rang out before the groundhog was scooped up by her handler. Then, people started laughing.

“It was a complete bungle,” Staten Island Zoo spokesman Brian Morris told the Associated Press in 2014.

#GroundhogGate ? pic.twitter.com/QNXr14nbWY

— 𝔾𝕝𝕠𝕓𝕒𝕝 𝕎𝕒𝕣ℕ𝕚𝕟𝕘 (@GlobalWarning84) February 3, 2021

After her fall, Charlotte received a thorough medical examination that “revealed no evidence of trauma or pain,” The Washington Post previously reported. A week later, though, she died.

Morris said zoo officials believed Charlotte suffered internal injuries sometime after the fall. Yet, suspicions persisted.

“It seemed like an accident, but think about it,” CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert said in a segment that year. “Staten Island was the only borough that de Blasio lost in the mayoral election. So clearly he responded the only way Staten Island understands: with a mob-style execution of their most beloved resident.”

The drop, de Blasio told New York Magazine, was less of a “coldblooded groundhog hit job straight out of WoodFellas,” as Colbert posited, and more of a “lack of advance work” when it came to handling the creature.

“Do you squeeze it really tight? I mean, what do you do?” he said.

The answer is twofold, said Gregory Florant, a biology professor at Colorado State University, who recommends groundhog handlers pick them up “under the belly and under the four paws,” holding them “very tightly” in a horizontal position. The key, he added, is getting a good grip on the groundhog’s rib cage but “not to suffocate it or to break its bones.”

Another option would be to lift it by its tail. While easier, Florant acknowledged that it probably wouldn’t yield good snapshots during a Groundhog Day ceremony.

In essence, politicians should hold tamed groundhogs like they would dogs or cats, said Daniel Blumstein, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor with UCLA.

Groundhogs are essentially overgrown squirrels that burrow underground and hibernate during wintertime. The “king of squirrels,” as Blumstein put it, plays an important role in their ecosystems across much of eastern and central United States: Their digging helps aerate the soil, their eating habits help plants grow and their defecation inside burrows helps fertilize the soil. Groundhogs also warn other species when danger is near, he said.

They ultimately got dragged into Groundhog Day shenanigans after Europeans who moved to the United States wanted to replicate Candlemas Day, a Christian feast that coincides with when hedgehogs come out of hibernation to predict the weather, Blumstein said. Realizing groundhogs in the United States were similar creatures, the February holiday involving a rodent and its shadow was born.

In New York, de Blasio’s blunder resulted in some changes for the Staten Island Zoo’s annual ceremony. Starting in 2015, only professional handlers were permitted to pick up a groundhog. Now Chuck is kept in plexiglass enclosure — which includes an elevator dubbed the “Chuck-a-vator” — that’s lifted at the start of the ceremony.

Blumstein said those changes made sense after de Blasio dropped Charlotte and Chuck bit his predecessor.

“Politicians shouldn’t hold the groundhogs,” he said. “But if they do: Please hold them carefully.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

Comments are closed.