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Town Criers, MP Alex Ruff, Ont. Premier Doug Ford, local MPP Bill Walker and Wiarton Mayor Janice Jackson, in Wiarton, Ont., Feb. 2, 2020.Doug Ball/The Canadian Press

The mayor of a small Ontario town defended the 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,” Ms. 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,” Ms. 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, Ms. Jackson said.

The town made a conscious decision to keep the death under wraps, Ms. Jackson said, hopeful they could find a replacement. Ms. 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, Ms. 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 latest news on Willie didn’t surprise Sam Brouwer, Willie’s caretaker from 1987 to 2002.

It has happened before, he said. “I had my suspicions Willie was dead,” Mr. Brouwer said.

Mr. Brouwer owned Wiarton Willie’s Motel and he kept three white groundhogs in an enclosure outside where the public could visit.

“We had them as pets, you could pick them up,” Mr. Brouwer said Wednesday. “We loved them, but I still have marked fingers and busted fingernails that are not growing out right just from groundhog bites.”

In 1999, when he went to check on Willie ahead of Groundhog Day – there have been many Willies over the years – the rodent was frozen solid, he said.

The town’s other albino groundhog had died the previous September, Mr. Brouwer said, so they didn’t have a backup with just a week to go before Groundhog Day.

The groundhog committee then decided to hold a funeral in place of its usual prognostication ceremony, using a white groundhog that had been stuffed years earlier.

The Willie that had died was not fit for the public at the time, Mr. Brouwer said.

“The smell was something you wouldn’t have wanted to be near,” Mr. Brouwer told The Canadian Press in 1999. “It would have been a closed-casket funeral.”

The stuffed rodent was unveiled on Groundhog Day in 1999 in a casket, to the surprise of the crowd. Children bawled and the news went international.

To this day, it remains with Mr. Brouwer in his attic.

“There’s a stuffed groundhog up there, how’s that?” he said. “And a coffin.”

Mr. Brouwer said he sold his motel in 2001 and the three young albino groundhogs went to the new owner, who then turned them over to the town.

The town built a new enclosure for the three groundhogs along with a tunnel, which was structured like a p-trap pipe found under sinks, that connected the inside to the outside, Mr. Brouwer said.

“I shouldn’t talk about this. … But no matter, by the time September comes around, they only seen one groundhog – nobody knew that two were dead,” Mr. Brouwer said, adding that the dead groundhogs were found in the tunnel, part of which he said would fill with water when snow melted or it rained.

“When they put the tunnel in they didn’t vent it, so it became a p-trap, and the groundhogs went to sleep and drowned in there,” Mr. Brouwer said.

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.

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