New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped a groundhog in front of a crowd gathered this February at the Staten Island Zoo's annual Groundhog Day celebration. A week later, the groundhog was found dead in its zoo cage.
A veterinarian at the zoo said the groundhog died from internal injuries, which may have been caused by the six-foot plunge from the mayor's hands to the ground.
"That is a feisty groundhog there, let me tell you. That is quite an active animal," de Blasio said a day after the incident. "He didn't bite me at least. I had him for a while and then he squirmed out. We got him back."
After the groundhog was discovered dead, Staten Island Zoo officials went to great lengths to cover-up the tragedy — and even kept the news from the mayor's office, The New York Post reported on Thursday.
A few zoo supporters were informed of the groundhog's untimely death, but were kept in the dark about the precise cause of death, the newspaper reported.
"I was told he died of old age, that he went to that big farm in the sky," Assemblyman Matthew Titone said.
The mayor's office reportedly learned of the animal's death from the Post. "We were unaware that Staten Island Chuck had passed but are sorry to hear of the loss," spokesman Phil Walzak said.
The zoo receives nearly half of its $3.5 million in annual funding from the city.
But in another strange twist, the animal that had just predicted six more weeks of winter and died was not actually the zoo's Groundhog Day star, Chuck, but rather a female stand-in named Charlotte. The zoo made the switch out of fear the famed groundhog might bite De Blasio after a 2009 incident with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"It's usually whichever groundhog is the least grouchy that day," zoo spokesman Brian Morris told the Associated Press. "This is a time of year when genetics tell them to be hibernating. They can be in a bad mood."
Zoo workers gave Charlotte a thorough examination after the spill in February and insisted Thursday that the mayor was not at fault for the animal's death.
"We don't know how the animal suffered the injuries but we don't think it was from the fall," zoo spokesperson Brian Morris told the AP. "We believe it happened sometime the night before she was found dead."
But the zoo said the handler may not have been "forceful enough" when placing the groundhog in de Blasio's glove-covered hands.
"It was a complete bungle," Morris said.
Next year, the zoo reportedly will use Charlotte and Chuck's youngest daughter, also named Charlotte, for the event.