Phil the groundhog: six more weeks of winter

PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - An American groundhog delivered his annual weather prediction on Tuesday, declaring that there will be six more weeks of winter after seeing his shadow.

Dubbed “Punxsutawney Phil,” the rodent made his forecast in front of about 12,000 people who came from as far as Chile and the Netherlands to see the 124-year-old tradition in 18 degree Fahrenheit (-8 degrees Celsius) temperatures.

Phil was lifted from his cage in a stump at dawn to the cheers of the waiting crowd, many of whom were dressed in groundhog hats and other paraphernalia.

Bill Deeley, president of the Punxsutawney Inner Circle organizers -- and reputedly the only person in the world who can speak “groundhogese” -- declared that Phil had “seen his shadow” as he has about 90 percent of the time.

For groundhog lovers who were unwilling to spend a night in the cold organizers of the event for the first time this year sent the text of the prognostication to people’s cell phones.

If Phil does not see his shadow when he emerges from his burrow, which is actually a box set into a tree stump near the western Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney, spring is said to be just around the corner.

But a high-profile rival delivered a different prediction on Tuesday with local media reporting that New York City’s “Staten Island Chuck” did not see his shadow.

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Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had criticized the event for traumatizing the groundhog and said Phil should be replaced with a robotic rodent.

Organizers dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.”

The tradition of the groundhog, a rodent related to the marmot, is said to have arrived in the United States with early German immigrants who settled in western Pennsylvania. The event was made famous by the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray.

John Martin, 63, a retired engineer, said he drove 350 miles from his home in Sardinia, Ohio, to witness the event for the fifth time in 10 years.

Martin, who came to Punxsutawney on his own, said it was hard to explain to his friends and neighbors why he should drive so far to attend the ceremony in the dark and cold.

“They think I’m crazy,” he said.

Priscilla McMannes, a 40-year-old warehouse worker, drove five hours from her home in Stanton, Virginia to come to attend the event for the first time.

“We saw it on TV and we watched the movie, and we wanted to see what all the fuss was about,” she said.

Editing by Michelle Nichols and Patricia Reaney