The animal rights organization PETA this week called for the retirement of Punxsutawney Phil, on the grounds that animals should not be used for the amusement of humans.
The organization further suggested that the groundhog be replaced with an animatronic groundhog, one equipped with instrumentation that would better predict the weather.
The Inquirer sat down with Phil to ask him how he felt about the PETA letter, and about the subsequent controversy. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
First, Phil, thanks for doing this. We know that you generally make only one public appearance per year, and you don’t like to break character, but obviously you feel it’s important to make your feelings known on this matter.
PHIL: That’s right. I don’t do interviews. I’m not comfortable in that arena. I have my big day. I pop my head up, see my shadow, or not. I take up enough of people’s time. But this PETA letter has to be addressed.
PHIL: Well, did you read it? It’s more than a little insensitive. PETA sends this letter to the middle of the Rust Belt, where tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs to automation, and now you tell them you want to replace their GROUNDHOG with a robot?
A robot groundhog that predicts the weather.
PHIL: Right. I can’t wrap my head around the literal-mindedness of that. Even by the standards of professional activists, this is earnest. I think people get that I’m not actually predicting the weather. That Groundhog Day is an excuse for people on what is typically the coldest time of the year to get wasted. How else to explain the Mummers, am I right? And it’s not like this inspires copycat behavior. If drunk people were pulling wild groundhogs from their homes to see if they cast a shadow, that would be different. Plus, I’ve noticed, humans just like saying ‘Gobblers Knob.’ They laugh every time. Why is that?
What about the idea that animals should not be kept in captivity, or used to entertain humans?
PHIL: I’m not going to lie to you. It’s suboptimal. Ideally I’d like a little more freedom. But I have relatives with total freedom, and most of them have been hit by Tahoes, Suburbans, Hummers, what have you. Also, when I’m not doing the show, I live in the (Punxsutawney Memorial) library, and I have access to books that give me insight into the situation. This need to name and personify animals is not unique to Punxsutawney. This is an enduring, consistent feature of the human imagination, and a touchstone of some pretty great stories – from Aesop to JK Rowling. We understand that these writers are not striving to portray animals in a realistic way, but to help humans learn more about themselves, through the power of narrative and characterization. I’m actually honored to be part of that tradition. It accounts for so much of literature. And animation. And film. Look at “Cats.” Although based on what I’m hearing, maybe don’t look at “Cats.“
The letter also calls for the emancipation of “the other groundhog,” your backup and alternate.
PHIL: Well I don’t want to speak for him, but it’s insulting. He has a name.
PHIL: Yes. We laugh, because it’s like that Monty Python skit where everybody in Australia is named Bruce.
PETA also says it’s unnatural for groundhogs to coexist with humans. Groundhogs are a “prey species.”
PHIL: Prey species. Note the lack of agency. Groundhogs, if you give us a chance, are capable of so much more.
PHIL: I’ve been working on some of my own material, something I could bring to the ceremony. Some sketches, some stand-up.
Could we hear some?
PHIL: Sure. ‘What did the carrot say to the groundhog?’
I don’t know. What?
PHIL: “Something’s been gnawing at me.”
PHIL: Maybe I’ll workshop that first?
I wouldn’t count on six more weeks of laughter.
Gary Thompson is a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer.