Garner's groundhog goes high-tech for his predictions of winter's length

aramos@newsobserver.comFebruary 2, 2014 

— Mortimer is no dumb groundhog.

While his counterparts Punxsutawney Phil and Sir Walter Wally rely on spotting their shadows to predict winter’s reign, Mortimer goes more high-tech.

About 24 hours before the groundhog was set to take the stage at Garner’s White Deer Park to give his forecast, Mortimer was planted in front of a laptop. On the screen were weather maps.

“Mortimer is hard at work, crunching numbers, looking at history and generally working hard trying to make tomorrow’s prediction as accurate as possible,” read a post on White Deer Park’s Facebook page below his picture.

There’s no doubt Mortimer’s method works, even if he needs a little help from parks staff. In the five years he’s been putting his talents to work, he’s racked up 100 percent accuracy. Pennsylvania’s famed Punxsutawney Phil has been making predictions for more than 120 years and has been right 39 percent of the time, according to Stormfax, which tracks the data.

Raleigh’s Sir Walter Wally fares a little better. Since 1998, Wally has been right 50 percent of the time, according to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

“They’re old-school,” said Stephanie Shaffer, Garner’s parks and outdoor education program manager. “Mortimer – he’s got it going on.

“He communes with Mother Nature. You can see him doing some statistical research. He takes a lot of naps so he can stay calm.”

On Groundhog Day, Mortimer travels from his home in Chapel Hill, where he is sheltered at CLAWS, a nonprofit that helps and rehabilitates wild and exotic animals.

When he’s ready, he typically whispers in the ear of Mayor Ronnie Williams, who announces the results. However, one year Mortimer got a little overzealous and nearly nipped Williams in the ear. His messages now appear after they’ve been dictated into letters.

Williams took the stage decked out in his usual top hat, tuxedo and red vest – an homage to his Punxsutawney peers.

Williams said Mortimer was confused over the change in weather from a polar freeze to a warm day in the 60s. Then came the moment everyone was waiting for: the prediction. Would it be spring or more winter?

With snow-filled roadways a too-recent memory, anticipation was in the air. People starting moving closer to the stage.

“(I predict) one more cold snap in February and then we will have an early spring,” Williams said, reading the letter. “If anyone is interested in the secondary event (Sunday), I am picking the Broncos to win.”

Williams agreed that it’s unusual for groundhogs to make predictions on Super Bowl games or anything else outside of the weather. But he shrugged it off.

“He’s the one who makes the forecasts and predictions. I guess he can’t get it out of his blood,” Williams said. “I think he overstepped a little. But it won’t matter (on Monday). The important thing is an event like this, it brings people out and they enjoy the event.”

Patrice Selles of Cary is originally from the northern region of France. It was his first Groundhog Day celebration and he brought out his family.

“This is the crazy stuff you only see in America,” he joked. “In different cultures, I think we are bothered by the cold weather and we want to know if there’s a way to see if it’s going to last.”

A scientist, Selles said he can see how people would seek traditions to feel comfort. But he agrees with Williams that it’s a family-friendly event at heart.

“The fact is, it’s a gathering of people,” he said.

Four-year-old Emmy Kandilov of Raleigh didn’t get to pet Mortimer. But she said she had fun and did share a description of Mortimer: “A fluffy squirrel. A big, fluffy squirrel.”

Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews

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