SUN PRAIRIE — There could be no nibble. Confined to a cage, Sun Prairie’s 12th Jimmy the Groundhog remained barred off from temptations of the flesh.
But in a city that bills itself as the “Groundhog Capital of the World,” use of a cage in Tuesday’s Groundhog Day festivities took some getting used to for some of the tradition’s biggest enthusiasts.
“I think (Jimmy XII) did all right,” said Jerry Hahn, who was handler for Jimmys VIII through XI. “We just need one we can hold at least fairly close to the mayor’s ear.”
The creatures that have earned the title “Jimmy” over Sun Prairie’s 68 years of Groundhog Day observances have demonstrated a variety of temperaments.
Hahn, 73, described Jimmy VIII as “kind of a man-eater” but said Jimmy X was very docile.
Regardless of temperament, recent history has favored cage-free critters, in the grip of a handler, “whispering” the prognostication to the mayor.
That changed after last year’s mishap, when Jimmy’s predecessor went rogue and nipped at then-Mayor Jon Freund’s ear.
Images and videos of the incident drew national attention, elevating the eastern Dane County community’s annual observance from a somewhat regional spectacle to one that has been featured in national television news segments this year.
Mayor Paul Esser, who was tasked with acquiring the prognostication from the Groundhog, supported using a cage for the ceremony, saying that rodents are wild animals and shouldn’t be treated like pets.
He approached the cage Tuesday morning to an onlooker’s chaffing warning of “Stay back, Paul,” but proceeded anyway to declare Jimmy had not seen his shadow, and that, accordingly, spring will come early.
“It was clearly overcast, so we weren’t exactly on pins and needles,” Esser said.
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But Esser has said he’s willing to go along with the wishes of the event’s organizer, the Sun Prairie Downtown Business Improvement District (BID), Hahn and others who hope to eliminate the cage from future events.
Caged Jimmy was brought in after handlers were forced to release his predecessor.
Hahn, who relinquished his groundhog charmer duties, gave the animal to BID manager Ti Gauger and her husband, Jeff, after last year’s event. But the widely distributed images of the biting incident drew the attention of federal and state authorities, who told them groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are required to be licensed if owned.
That prompted Gauger and her husband to release Jimmy back to the wild last summer and caused the BID to scramble for a new rodent.
Organizers had discussed using a mascot or a puppet in the event a live animal couldn’t be secured, but the BID successfully contracted with Wild Bill’s Exotics for $1,200 to get a groundhog for the annual shadow-spotting ritual.
BID did debut a new groundhog mascot costume in addition to Jimmy that was donated by Keith Janick of the Milwaukee-area CJ Huggables and Mascots USA.
Former Sun Prairie Mayor Joe Chase said the ceremony benefits by having a groundhog that can be handled outside the cage because of the event’s importance to the city.
“We’ve got two things: Georgia O’Keeffe and the groundhog. And Georgia has always been in the shadow of the groundhog,” Chase said.
But others said the cage doesn’t detract too much from the tradition.
“It’s a little different feel, but it was fun,” said Teresa Miller-Adamzak, of Sun Prairie. “Nobody got hurt and we still enjoyed the celebration. What a cute little groundhog.”