Wiarton Willie has died
Wiarton Willie in 2014.
The pug-nosed albino groundhog that has served as Wiarton's famous weather prognosticator for the past 11 years has died.
Wiarton Willie, who was 13 years old, was found dead in his home at Bluewater Park on the weekend, South Bruce Peninsula announced Wednesday.
“He just died in his sleep,” Mayor Janice Jackson said in an interview.
“When Gord Glover (Willie's handler) went in to feed him Saturday morning, he was dead. And Gord feeds him everyday. But Willie has been very frail for some time.”
The town has decided to hold a “celebration of life” and funeral procession at Bluewater Park on Sept. 30 to honour the furry rodent.
Jackson said the town already has a two-year-old “understudy” groundhog that will assume the role of Wiarton Willie after the ceremony concludes.
She said she didn't think it would have been fair for the town to say nothing of the elder groundhog's demise and simply present the younger groundhog as Willie on Groundhog Day.
“It just wouldn't be right to simply switch the two out and pretend that nothing ever happened,” she said.
“I think we owe a lot to Wiarton Willie and I think this is an appropriate tribute to him and I hope a lot of people come out on Sept. 30.”
A Groundhog Day festival has taken place in Wiarton since 1956 when founder Mac McKenzie decided to throw a mid-winter party in a local tavern with some friends. McKenzie died last month at age 90.
Over the years, several albino marmots have served as Wiarton Willie who, according to legend, can predict whether or not there will be an early spring or six more weeks of winter depending on if he can see his shadow or not on Feb. 2.
The death of Willie in 1999 made international headlines. Festival organizers, at the time, said Willie was 22 years old when he died just two days before his big prediction. Since no stand-ins were available, organizers decided to present to the world a stuffed groundhog, in a small wooden coffin with coins over his eyes, on Groundhog Day.
The town then got three new Willies from the Ottawa area, but two of them were found dead in late 2003 in their new pen outside of Wiarton's library. They may have frozen to death or succumbed to some consequence of water seepage into their tunnel.
The third groundhog served as Wiarton Willie until he died of an infection in 2006 at age 8. An estimated 300 people gathered in Bluewater Park to say goodbye at a memorial ceremony.
The most recent Wiarton Willie was captured in a live trap in the Markdale area.
He has whispered his Groundhog Day prediction to four different mayors over the past 11 years – Carl Noble, Gwen Gilbert, John Close and, since 2015, Jackson.
“He was a real sweetie,” Jackson said. “It was really fun working with him. He clearly responded to people around him and especially his caretaker. It was really remarkable how bonded he was to his caretaker.”
She said Willie's understudy was spotted by a little boy in Oro-Medonte, who called the town. Willie's caretaker drove to Hunstville to pick up the groundhog.
Jackson said the town will now search for another understudy.
“We always have a back-up Willie just in case. It's so critical to the town that we certainly can't leave ourselves vulnerable,” she said.
South Bruce Peninsula noted in a news release on Willie's death that groundhogs in the wild don't typically live longer than four years.
“Willie's daily care regimen coupled with living in a safe and protected environment allowed Willie to reach the ripe old age of 13,” it said.
The celebration of life for Willie is set to begin at 11 a.m. at Bluewater Park. A funeral procession is to travel through the park where Willie will be honoured beside the statue of his likeness.