Jan. 22, 2014. He’s the Clark Kent of groundhogs – a mild-mannered mammal who leaves a humble mountain life each February to become a rock star in Raleigh.
In the state capital he transforms into the alter ego of Sir Walter Wally, a royal rodent with a prognostication track record superior to Punxsutawney Phil and one of the “Top 11 Groundhogs to Watch” as deemed by The Weather Channel.
But away from the limelight, this furry forecaster is simply Gunther, an adult groundhog rescued by Genesis Wildlife Sanctuary after an encounter with a vehicle. He spends 364 days a year on Beech Mountain under the careful watch of wildlife specialist Denise Shadduck.
“Yes, we do have a famous resident right here on Beech Mountain,” Shadduck says. “He can’t be released into the wild because he would not survive, however he does survive very well in captivity. His name is Gunther, but he’s better known as Sir Walter Wally on Groundhog Day.”
The partnership between Genesis Wildlife and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences began in 1998. Groundhogs were scarce in the flatlands back then and the museum needed a star for its newly-formed Groundhog Day celebration.
The alliance has been a win-win. Genesis Wildlife receives publicity and is able to educate the crowds in Raleigh about the only mammal in North Carolina who truly hibernates (NC bears go to sleep, but do not fully hibernate). Meanwhile, the folks at the science museum have a real live headliner for a popular event that drew more than 8,000 people last year.
“It’s a great relationship,” says Miranda Wood, the museum’s education specialist. “Denise is wonderful, and their groundhogs are always friendly and easy to work with. The public gets really excited to be able to meet Sir Walter Wally and take a picture with him.”
Since 1998, according to the museum, Sir Walter Wally has been 50 percent accurate in predicting the weather for the final six weeks of winter. During that same period, the museum says, Pennsylvania’s famed Punxsutawney Phil has been right 31 percent of the time.
It’s quite heady stuff for a mammal who spends most of the year in anonymity, but this merry meteorologist takes it all in stride.
“He is a little rock star, but he doesn’t let pride take over,” Shadduck says. “He’s a very humble hog.”
This year’s Groundhog Day celebration takes place Sunday, Feb. 2, at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Festivities begin at noon, and there’s no charge for admission.