An insider’s look at ‘Willie’s world’
As Groundhog Day fast approaches, Don Crain took time out from his duties as caretaker of Willie, the world famous albino prognosticator, to give the Wiarton Echo a behind-the-scenes peek as Willie prepares for his big day, Feb. 2.
Crain, facilities co-ordinator for the town of South Bruce Peninsula (SBP), has taken care of everything from Willie’s meals to his lodgings, from his vet visits to acting as tourist liaison – speaking with tourists on behalf of his furry charge – since 2006.
In an exclusive interview Jan. 2, at the Wiarton Echo offices, Crain said he would soon begin preparing Willie, now 11 going on 12, for the festival named in his honour.
“In about three weeks I’ll start to trick him and turn up the heat so he thinks it’s spring,” Crain said.
The temperature of the rodent’s enclosure will gradually be raised from 55 degrees Fahrenheit to about 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s like waking up a teenager,” he said, noting the groundhog’s initial grogginess and reluctance.
Once he’s roused, Crain will take Willie to a local veterinarian for his annual physical.
“He hasn’t lost any weight over the last few years, he’s been right on,” Crain said.
The only issue he’s had over the years was a slight bald patch on the back end that appeared the year before last, Crain said. The vet reassured him Willie was perfectly healthy and explained that – like most of us who are aging – groundhogs too could experience hair loss.
The vet gave Willie a shot – Crain was unsure of what – and Willie’s coat has since returned to its normal, healthy state.
Throughout the winter months, Crain visits his charge every second or third day, to ensure all is well. Because of his heated enclosure, Willie does not hibernate as completely as his wild counterparts – known as true or full hibernators – but he sleeps “three to four days at a time; maybe a week or a month,” Crain said.
Willie will be fully awake a day or two before prediction morning, when Crain will be at his pen at 5 a.m.
With Willie in his cage, the pair will go by truck to wherever the procession starts that year. The location changed from Bluewater Park to the Wiarton & District Curling Club last year – where it will probably stay, Crain said, although that hasn’t yet been confirmed for 2017.
From there, Crain and Willie, usually accompanied by a marching band, will proceed to the Wiarton Community Centre and Arena (again, probable but unconfirmed) for the prediction.
Like any famous performer, Willie too has an understudy.
Last year, the town received a call when a fiveyear-old Orillia boy and his mother found a tiny albino groundhog in their yard.
The boy named the groundhog Zook.
“I went over last August and picked him up,” Crain said.
Unlike Willie, who is albino but a slightly offwhite shade, Zook is “white-white,” Crain said.
There are other slight differences between the two.
“One likes sweet potato and the other [Willie] doesn’t like it at all,” Crain said.
While Willie has become sociable only within the last couple of years, Zook was a “sociable little guy” from the get-go, even allowing Crain to pet him – a feat not yet accomplished with Willie.
After Zook arrived, Crain soon experienced an incident of deja vu from his first year with Willie.
Willie was only about a year old, living in the original pen at the Wiarton Library.
“He was a typical groundhog,” Crain said.
“He went out and dug himself a burrow inside the pen and stuffed it full of straw and went to sleep. It was October. I couldn’t coax him to come out.”
Crain said Willie was just doing what groundhogs do, but he had to use a little shovel to dig him out and “put him inside where he was going to be warm so I could retrieve him on Groundhog Day.”
Zook arrived at about the same age, around one or one-and-a-half years old.
Around the end of October, “I hadn’t seen him,” said Crain. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no.’”
Once again, Crain grabbed a small shovel and dug out his fledgling charge.
“I think Zook will learn and he won’t do it again,” Crain said. “Willie only did it one year, when he was a little guy.”
Willie’s caregiver learned about tunnel architecture from his first experience.
“The first year it took me quite a while to find [Willie],” Crain said. “The second time with Zook, we found him within an hour and a bit.”
Crain keeps in touch with the family that found Zook, sending photos of him on occasion.
If and when Zook has to take over prognostication day, he’ll be ready, Crain said.
“He’s right in there. He’s very sociable.”
In keeping with tradition, Zook will take the name Willie to fulfill his duties should the time come.
In the meantime, Crain will continue to care for the pair year-round, rarely leaving town, as the job is so demanding.
“Once they wake up, I’m there every day,” Crain said.
At 6 or 6:30 a.m., Crain begins his day by feeding the groundhogs their vegetarian breakfasts of fresh vegetables – including a selection of greens, carrots, cauliflower, celery, green beans and radishes.
Crain cleans the enclosures and makes sure there’s plenty of fresh straw.
One of Crain’s favourite aspects of the job is speaking with visitors.
“I’ll whistle and sometimes he’ll come out or the other one will, and they’ll go, ‘Oh, wow.’
“They’ll ask how old he is and where he came from. That’s the cool part.”
Zook, Wiarton Willie’s young understudy, relaxed at his home near the Wiarton Library, Aug. 3.
Willie, Wiarton’s famed albino groundhog and seasoned prognosticator, enjoyed a leisurely fall day at his home at Bluewater Park in Wiarton, Aug. 3.