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Wineka column: No shadows for this groundhog today

SALISBURY — Bob Pendergrass led us through various doors, gates and roped-off areas until we reached the inside cages behind the bear habitat.
But we weren’t here to see the bears. We wanted to check up on Buddy, the groundhog at Dan Nicholas Park.
Happy Groundhog Day, by the way.
While all the attention this morning will be focused on a rodent in Pennsylvania named Punxsutawney Phil and his weather prognostication for the next six weeks, folks in Rowan County are more likely to take Buddy’s approach to a groundhog’s one big day in — or out of — the spotlight.
He couldn’t care less.
Which makes us think that our incredibly mild winter will continue. Temperatures could approach 70 today, and now that we’re already into February, a lot of us are thinking we should dust off the baseball mitts and just put winter behind us.
There are reasons to appreciate the winter we have had so far. Just think of all the money our state and local governments have saved on snow removal.
Consider the cash we’ve kept in our pockets because of our lower gas and electric bills. School officials and parents have not been fretting over cancellations or delays.
We haven’t been making mad dashes to the grocery store for milk and bread, and you probably can find a good deal right now on winter coats.
Maybe one snow would have been nice, but now it’s too late. It’s difficult for any groundhog to say we’re going to have six more weeks of winter when we haven’t really had winter anyway.
Buddy couldn’t care less.
Last fall, Buddy broke a toe, and park personnel were concerned it would affect his digging ability. They didn’t want to take a chance he couldn’t tunnel into the ground outside and create his usual burrow for hibernation.
So they made a home for Buddy in one of the cages where the bears are kept at night. (He has his own spacious cage in the corner of the building.)
A small doghouse was placed in the corner with straw piled up inside. Buddy dug into the straw and hibernated for a couple of months. He emerged from hibernation early — he usually is a late sleeper — and has been fairly active in recent weeks, seemingly recovered from the broken toe.
Pendergrass, the Nature Center’s supervisor, loves Buddy.
“He has more personality than I do,” he says.
As we enter his cage, Buddy’s motor is running, humming along like the purrs of a cat, only with a little more attitude. It’s comforting in a way.
He’s shy with strangers invading his habitat. He keeps walking behind another house in his room and peeking around the corners.
Pendergrass has set out a metal dish filled with strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, carrots, rodent block and greens. He also has thrown a cob of corn on top — one of Buddy’s favorites. But Buddy refuses to eat until he has a bit more privacy.
As groundhogs go, Buddy is — excuse the expression — long in the tooth. He came to the park in 2006 after a wildlife rehabilitation specialist in Winston-Salem had raised him from a young age.
She hated to place Buddy back in the wild because he had grown up around dogs and was too friendly with them and humans.
So Buddy is about 8 years old, toward the top end of the life expectancy for groundhogs.
These critters generally weigh 12 to 15 pounds, aren’t quite 2 feet long and have gray, course hair with dark tips at the end.
Pendergrass says groundhogs are clean animals. They dig a separate tunnel chamber as a bathroom so it’s apart from the burrows they call home.
There are few surprises mixed in with the mulch in Buddy’s cage.
It’s difficult to talk about Buddy and Groundhog Day without thinking of Evelyn Looney, who as a child had a pet groundhog named Pokie.
Evelyn grew up in southwest Virginia. One day, when she was about 6 or 7 years old, a hunter stopped by the house. He had killed a mother groundhog, and he had a baby groundhog in a bucket.
The baby’s eyes weren’t even open, and “immediately, I decided I had to have it,” Evelyn says. Her mother and grandmother relented, figuring her infatuation with the groundhog would wane quickly, as soon as it started growing.
Evelyn fixed a bed for the groundhog in her bottom dresser drawer. Later, to ease its fears, she allowed the groundhog to sleep on her chest at night. Early on, she fed it cow’s milk with an eye-dropper.
The groundhog began growing and eating quite a bit. Evelyn named him Pokie, describing the way he would waddle through the house.
She established a chair for Pokie at the dinner table next to her own, and he would sit there eating her mother’s biscuits. He would stand on his hind feet and manage the biscuit like a squirrel holding a nut.
Other members of her family were not so thrilled about having a groundhog in the house, and Pokie saved most of his affection for Evelyn alone. She laughs remembering how he would nip at the heels of her younger sister.
Evelyn was the only person who could carry Pokie around, slung over a shoulder.
Her mother eventually suggested opening the front door and letting Pokie explore the outside. He promptly went into the yard, picked up a stick and banged on the door to return inside.
As he continued going into the yard and coming back, Pokie would always bring more sticks. He built a nest of sorts in the area underneath their stairs in the old farmhouse.
“He could get in there and get away from everyone,” Evelyn says.
Again, Pokie’s presence inside the house exasperated most everybody else in the family.
Pokie met a tragic end to his life one day while the family — except for an uncle — was away from the house. As it was explained to Evelyn, still a little girl, he had fallen off the porch and hit his head on a rock.
She figured things out later. To this day, however, she still has fond memories of Pokie — maybe her best pet ever.
“It was one of the few (pets) I considered just mine,” she says. “I never had anyone say they wanted to share Pokie.”
Evelyn says she and Pokie really bonded during their year or so together.
“I don’t know if groundhogs can feel love,” Evelyn says, “but …”
Wait. Valentine’s Day will be here before you know it.
But for now, on Groundhog Day, let’s call it a shadow of love.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@ salisburypost.com

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