Groundhog dies after escaping NYC mayor's grip

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NEW YORK (AP) — Her shadow was one of the last things she saw.

The groundhog that escaped Mayor Bill de Blasio's grasp during this year's Staten Island Zoo Groundhog Day ceremony died a week after the fall.

But the rodent, which had just predicted six more weeks of winter before tumbling several feet from the mayor's hands, was not the zoo's famed Staten Island Chuck, but rather a stand-in named Charlotte.

Moreover, the zoo did not notify the mayor's office of the death, which was first reported by The New York Post. The story electrified social media on Thursday, prompting a flood of Twitter jokes about a #Groundhoghazi cover-up and de Blasio's possible impeachment.

"We were unaware that Staten Island Chuck had passed but are sorry to hear of the loss," mayoral spokesman Phil Walzak said.

This was de Blasio's first time doing the annual ceremony. He wore heavy work gloves on the cold winter day, in part as a safety precaution after Chuck bit Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009.

A zoo spokesman said Thursday that the groundhog's handler "may not have been forceful enough" in placing the animal in de Blasio's hands, preventing the mayor from getting a firm grip. The groundhog quickly squirmed away from the inexperienced mayor and plummeted to the ground.

"It was a complete bungle," zoo spokesman Brian Morris said in an interview.

Morris said the animal was given a thorough medical examination in the hours after the incident, and the check-up "revealed no evidence of trauma or pain." The groundhog then participated in several events over the next week with no obvious ill effects from the fall.

But on the morning of Feb. 9, the animal was found dead in its exhibit. A necropsy performed by the zoo veterinarian indicated that the animal died of internal injuries.

"We don't know how the animal suffered the injuries but we don't think it was from the fall," Morris said. "We believe it happened sometime the night before she was found dead."

Morris also revealed that the zoo has four groundhogs, all with the variations of the brand name "Chuck." On the morning of Feb. 2, zoo staff selects which of the groundhogs will participate in the ceremony and be dubbed Chuck for the day (the animal's formal name is Charles G. Hogg).

"It's usually whichever groundhog is the least grouchy that day," Morris said. "This is a time of year when genetics tell them to be hibernating. They can be in a bad mood."

Morris confirmed that the zoo did not tell the mayor's office about the death.

"There was no reason to do it," he said. "It's not like we were trying to spare the mayor's feelings."

But news of the death prompted City Council Minority Leader Vincent Ignizio, a Republican, to suggest that de Blasio, a Democrat, shouldn't try to hold the rodent next year.

"I think the handling of the groundhog may be best left to professionals," Ignizio said.

Morris said zoo officials might consider changing the format to keep the groundhog out of untrained mayoral hands.

Groundhogs live about seven years, Morris said. Charlotte was 10 months old when she died.

Morris also confirmed that the Chuck that bit Bloomberg has died.

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