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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Chuck the Groundhog Bites Mayor Bloomberg

February 3, 2009
Reclusive Staten Island Groundhog Bites Mayor

There are creatures — hibernating bears come to mind, or emergency-room doctors after an overnight shift — who don’t appreciate being roused from their slumber. Perhaps that’s what irked Chuck the Groundhog on Monday morning on Staten Island when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg tried to lure him out of his wooden shelter.

Chuck wasn’t up for whatever it was that Mr. Bloomberg had planned for him — or for predicting how much longer winter was going to last, for that matter. And he got so annoyed at the mayor that he bit the mayor’s left hand, his sharp teeth piercing Mr. Bloomberg’s black leather gloves.

One can argue that Mr. Bloomberg sort of asked for it. As cameras rolled and the crowd took in the event — a local imitation of the Punxsutawney Phil (see picture below) tradition — Chuck at first refused to come out. Children chanted his name to no avail. Mr. Bloomberg seemed to realize that the reclusive rodent was spoiling the show.

He tried to lure Chuck out of his cottage with an ear of corn, but Chuck shrewdly grabbed the corn and dragged it inside to enjoy. The mayor tried again, twice, but then, seemingly out of patience, he grabbed Chuck by the belly with both hands before he could hide again and held him up in the air for everyone to see.

By then, the mayor had already been bitten.

Mr. Bloomberg did not seem upset. During an unrelated announcement later in the day — with a bandage on his left index finger — he provided only scant details about the incident involving the 3-year-old, 10-pound groundhog, formally known as Charles G. Hogg.

“Given the heightened response against terrorism, and clearly in this case a terrorist rodent who could very well have been trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, I’m not at liberty to say any more than that,” the mayor said.

It happened around 7:30 a.m. during the annual Groundhog Day ceremony at the Staten Island Zoo, in front of several dignitaries, including the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, and Senator Charles E. Schumer. No other injuries were reported.

“I made it out alive: no bites, no scratches,” Ms. Quinn said. “But I kept a little bit more of a distance from the groundhog. I knew him not to be the jolliest fellow. But I didn’t know he was nasty.”

Mary Lee Montalvo, a spokeswoman for the Staten Island Zoo, said that Chuck didn’t have a history of violent behavior and probably did what he did because he was nervous.

“He was basically concentrating on his food,” Ms. Montalvo said. “The mayor’s fingers may have just been there. He wasn’t necessarily going for the mayor.”

The groundhog had no comment.

New Yorkers — and animal lovers of the world — have no reason to worry, though. Chuck is a healthy rodent, and nothing will happen to him as a result of the attack. And according to a mayoral spokesman, Mr. Bloomberg is up to date on his tetanus shot.

Sewell Chan contributed reporting.

February 4, 2009
An Encore for Chuck the Groundhog, a Day After the Chomp
Is there redemption after public disgrace? Say you didn’t pay your taxes. Or you were too tight with the lobbyists. Or maybe you bit the mayor.

Redemption? Not for Charles G. Hogg, a k a Chuck, the mayor-biting groundhog at the Staten Island Zoo.

First — on Groundhog Day, no less — Chuck botched the biggest photo opportunity of his not-quite-3-year-old life. He chomped on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s index finger.

That raised a question for follow-up: Would Tuesday’s Chuck be any kinder or gentler?

So the zookeepers trotted him out for another photo op. Only one camera and two reporters showed up this time.

That word “trotted” is a problem. It suggests politeness. It suggests civility. It suggests everything that Chuck was not as he went rampaging across the stage in the zoo’s auditorium, knocking over a prop-size statue of a giraffe.

Then one of the photographers put a photograph of Mr. Bloomberg where Chuck could not miss it. Chuck rubbed his lips on the corner of the picture frame. He was not making nice — it looked as if he had bared his teeth. But the mayor should not take this personally. Chuck did the same to everything he rubbed up against before he jumped off the stage and waddled around the auditorium for a victory lap, Chuck style.

“He’s usually well behaved,” insisted Doug Schwartz, a zookeeper. A lot of parents use that excuse for a child who is going through the terrible 2s. Chuck will turn 3 next month. Mr. Schwartz said he felt “the way any parent would feel if their kid acted up.” And there was no denying that Chuck had acted up. The mayor was the first human Chuck had ever bitten, Mr. Schwartz said.

Still, Mr. Schwartz had an explanation for what happened. Chuck felt cornered, and he snapped because he thought the mayor was stealing his food when he reached in, trying to draw Chuck out when Chuck was feeling reclusive.

Mr. Schwartz deduced this because he spends a lot of time in Chuck’s company. During the week, Chuck lives in a holding area in the basement of the zoo near Mr. Schwartz’s desk. On weekends, Mr. Schwartz takes him home.

This qualifies Mr. Schwartz to say things like “he’s very playful” and “he’s got a real personality.”

Which, some may argue, was the problem on Monday.

By Tuesday, Mr. Schwartz’s boss, John J. Caltabiano, the executive director of the zoo, had the one-liners ready. One, inevitably, was about biting the hand that feeds you. The city provides as much as half of the zoo’s budget, Mr. Caltabiano said, and the city is cutting its share by 17 percent in the coming fiscal year.

Mr. Caltabiano is well aware that the mayor has survived past Groundhog Days without injury. In his office is a framed photograph of the mayor holding a groundhog in February 2006.

But the groundhog in the picture was Chuck’s father. Eight groundhogs have played the role of Chuck in the last 27 years. Monday was the first time that Mr. Bloomberg had handled the current Chuck, who is apparently feistier than his father was.

It might have been the last time, too. Mr. Caltabiano said that he was working on breeding Chuck VIII and would retire him if there was a Chuck IX by next Groundhog Day.

And no, Mr. Caltabiano said, retirement “didn’t have anything to do with him biting the mayor.” The “usual cycle” for Chucks, he said, is three to five years. It’s time.

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.