Every day is Groundhog Day for zookeeper Doug Schwartz. Schwartz has been working with animals for over 15 years, but his main charge is Staten Island Chuck, the 10-pound, two-year-old groundhog who serves as New York City's answer to Punxsutawney Phil. Chuck has a knack for accurate predictions, but he only gets trotted out once a year and doesn't even have a permanent display at the zoo. So what does he do the rest of the time? TIME talks to Schwartz about caring for Chuck and how the animal makes his Groundhog Day prediction.
How did you get stuck with Chuck?
When I started at the Staten Island Zoo 15 years ago, I was working in the hospital the surgical unit and that's where the groundhogs were kept at that time. We had some baby groundhogs that were so young they had to be bottle-fed every four hours, so that started this whole process of me taking groundhogs home on weekends. Chuck was wild caught. He was an orphan, but now that we only have Chuck, he lives with me.
He lives with you?
Oh, yes. Chuck has free range of the house and uses a litter box. But you know, groundhogs are very aggressive. To try to make them cute and filmable isn't easy. If you spend a lot of time with one, the groundhog gets to know you and kind of understands that yes, it has to go on Rachael Ray but that's okay cause you're there with him. If you tried that with a wild groundhog, he would just be stressed and the audience would pick up on that. Whereas I work with Chuck and he knows me, he chases my wife around the house, so I know
Wait, he chases your wife around the house?
Last Saturday he jumped on her leg and tore her pants a little bit, so I had to put the groundhog away and kind of comfort the wife and take her out to dinner. Nothing major, just stuff like that. His new thing is that he pulls lamps off of tables.
Oh yeah, he climbs up the electric cords and then the lamp just goes flying across the room. The wife starts screaming and it's pandemonium.
So how does she feel about living with him?
She's pretty supportive of my career. Anything I go for she goes for. We've been married 26 years and have a really happy zoological house, so she's on board with the whole scene.
Can you take him for walks?
He doesn't like the outside. He likes living rooms and my library. He likes going in there and eating my Russian novels. When I go on vacation he comes home with me and we stay together in the house. He doesn't like the great outdoors anymore.
So what happens on Groundhog Day?
The crowd gathers around 7 a.m. and Chuck makes the prediction at 7:30. We had 800 people last year because it was a Sunday. This year falls on a Monday so it'll be a little quieter, we'll have maybe 400 or 500. He's in a display house and we just open the door and he comes out and sees his shadow, or not. The mayor will come and announce his prediction and then it's over. Usually limos show up and right away we're whisked away to ABC or The Today Show. So we're there and it happens and then off we go.
How do you know if he sees his shadow or not?
If he sees his shadow he's unhappy, and an unhappy groundhog is easy to pick up on. It's easy to tell his mood. He's pretty vocal. It's mostly just an assessment of how he's feeling that determines what the verdict is.
And he's very successful in his predictions.
I'm proud of my boy! Punxsutawney Phil is my main competitor, but he only has a 43% accuracy. You can flip a coin and come out basically the same predictions. But my boy is right 85% of the time. You can't argue with a good product. You want accurate readings, you go to Chuck.
How do you make him so accurate?
Well, he can't be stressed or he will automatically be upset. You get him used to the surroundings. You coax him, you practice having camera people around him. He gets used to it. Also, he always maintains eye contact with me and that reassures him. We have that kind of relationship.
So he needs you to be there?
I call it job security. In these trying times it's nice to know I won't be outsourced or replaced.
Is he affectionate at all?
Usually he is. I can rub my face in his belly and he squeals. A couple weeks ago we were sleeping in the same bed together, although that may be illegal in New York State. We take naps, it's kind of like a very intimate little love affair we've got going. But around Groundhog Day he's most ornery cause it's breeding season and he is trying to assert his dominance so that other males will stay away. He makes an awful screeching sound and then he scent marks my house and I have to go and clean it up. He's looking for a wife. I had one all set up and then we had the current economic situation and the exhibit was put on hold and I had to pass on the wife.
Can you use him to predict anything else?
You just put a question to him in the moment and see how he reacts. He's a very readable barometer. Just ask him your question and assess his mood and there's your answer. Chuck is kind of a Zen groundhog. He is filled with wisdom.