An in­sider’s look at ‘Wil­lie’s world’

Wiarton Echo - - FRONT PAGE - Zoe Kessler Ed­i­tor

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.

Zoe Kessler/Wiar­ton Echo

Wil­lie, Wiar­ton’s famed al­bino ground­hog and sea­soned prog­nos­ti­ca­tor, en­joyed a leisurely fall day at his home at Blue­wa­ter Park in Wiar­ton, Aug. 3.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.