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Inside a DC Bar’s Long, Strange Quest to Rent a Groundhog

The backup Punxsutawney Phils are busy, and a showbiz groundhog costs seven grand.

Photograph by Flickr user anoldent.

Back in December, the staff at Dacha, the beer garden in Navy Yard and Shaw, faced a conundrum: How to draw crowds in the dead of winter? One suggestion was a Groundhog Day party, ideally with a real-live groundhog. The response was ecstatic. A groundhog had to be found.

The task of hiring a domesticated groundhog fell to Lizzy Krueger, the event coordinator and beer garden manager at Dacha in Navy Yard. But alas, it was tougher than one might think—first to find a bookable groundhog, then to book it for February 2nd, the busiest day of the groundhog year. 

In the end, Krueger did not find an affordable and available groundhog to bless us with its prognostications this Groundhog Day. But her quest was weird and funny. Here’s our chat below. 

So, what was your initial plan for hiring a groundhog to come to Dacha?

Our idea was that we were going to try to find a nature preserve with an ambassador groundhog, the kind of animal that would be taken to a school or a petting zoo or something, that would be comfortable around people.

And how would the patrons of Dacha interact with this groundhog? 

We were going to leave that to whoever the trainer or handler was in charge of the groundhog, because they would know what it was capable of. 

I know when Punxsutawney Phil comes [to events], they have him in a nice big glass cage. And you can just look at him, you can take pictures next to him, but there isn’t petting or anything. I don’t think that many groundhogs are very pettable. So at Dacha, it would have been in a large cage situation where you can kind of ascertain whether he saw a shadow or not.

Okay, so what happened when you tried to get one?

We tried for a very long time, and unfortunately it did not work. We contacted somewhere in the area of 35 different wildlife preserves, petting zoos, regular zoos, animal trainers, circuses—anything we could think of. All of them got back to us, thought it was a hilarious idea, but they couldn’t help us because they did not have an ambassador groundhog. Or if they had one, it was, like, an injured groundhog they found in the wild and were trying to rehabilitate, so it was not available.

Did they tell you why it is that they didn’t have any groundhogs? 

They just don’t get them very often at nature preserves, and the ones they tend to get are injured ones. Apparently there are certain animals where, if they’re abandoned too young, nature preserves take them in because they wouldn’t survive in the wild. But groundhogs are not like that. They’re pretty hardy, so they can generally just release them. That was kind of the answer I was given.

What did you try next? 

We tried to contact Punxsutawney Phil. And the secret is that there’s actually more than one Punxsutawney Phil that you can rent. But the demand on Groundhog Day is unfortunately too high, so all the Punxsutawney Phils were otherwise engaged. I’m sure if you want Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day, you have to book him like a year out.

Bummer. What happened after that?

Well, the only person I found that had a groundhog was an animal trainer in LA for the movies. And if we were in LA, it would have been $4,000 for the groundhog. But to get the groundhog to DC would have been upwards of $7,000.

Are you serious? What does a groundhog do for a $4,000 day rate?

I guess it’s probably in movies. I don’t know. They didn’t really tell me much, except that if they sent it to us, it would have to come with its trainer. We’d pay airfare, and we’d have to find lodging that would accept a groundhog, and I don’t know how we would have done that. Plus, flying with a groundhog on an airplane is apparently extraordinarily difficult and would cost a lot of money. It was just an insane number, so we couldn’t quite pull that off.

Wait, why is it difficult to fly with a groundhog on an airplane?

They didn’t really elaborate on that. I don’t know if they freak out or something? Maybe the groundhog is just so valuable, because it’s trained so well, that they don’t want to put it underneath the plane.

Is part of it that groundhogs are so mean?

They are difficult to train, apparently. And they’re a little bit aggressive. That’s definitely part of the reason why ambassador groundhogs are really hard to come by. 

I was watching the Groundhog Day movie again, and I was marveling at what a well-trained groundhog that must have been. There’s that scene when Bill Murray has the groundhog in the front of the car with him. I was like, man, that’s a special groundhog they got.

Yeah, that groundhog is really earning its day rate. So what was the fatal blow to the groundhog plan?

Our last resort was that I made this sign that said, “Can we borrow your groundhog?” And we posted it all over the internet as sort of a last ditch, like, maybe somebody we haven’t contacted yet will see this and reach out to us. And after about two weeks, we were like, this isn’t going to happen.

Did anyone reach out?

A few people did reach out, but none of it really materialized. We thought we had a couple of leads, but nobody specifically came forward and said, “I have a groundhog you might be able to use.” So we were thinking about how to salvage the event without a groundhog.

What are you going to do instead?

We’ll be showing the movie Groundhog Day on repeat, of course. And we’re going to do specialty cocktails with Whistlepig whiskey, because it’s not a very well-known fact, but “whistlepig” is another word for groundhog.

Do you know why? 

It’s the British term for groundhog.

But, like, do they whistle? 

They do make a squeaking noise, yes.

Oh, okay. Interesting. 

Yeah. So we’re doing cocktail specials with Whistlepig whiskey, one of them representing winter, and one of them representing spring. We also came up with the idea of a Groundhog/Hound Dog Day event. So we’re encouraging everyone to bring their dogs to the garden, and we’ll be setting up a doggy photo booth to mimic the scene in the movie where it’s Bill Murray in the car with the groundhog on his lap. You can have the picture of your dog look like it’s a groundhog that you’ve kidnapped in your car.

We’re also working with Chippin treats, it’s a local dog treat brand, and they’re going to set up two boxes that say “six more weeks of winter” and “spring is right around the corner,” with two different kinds of treats. The dog gets to play groundhog and choose which treat it wants.

That sounds fun, but I’m curious if you are personally of the opinion that groundhogs can predict the weather.

I mean, I want to say yes, just because it’s funny. But no, not really. I think the dogs might be better at it, actually. 

Yeah, they have special abilities that we lack.

I’ll take whatever their opinion is into account.

Okay, the last thing I want to ask is whether you are aware of the Bill de Blasio Groundhog incident.

No, I’m not. 

So, back in 2014, Bill de Blasio was doing a Groundhog Day event at the Staten Island Zoo and they gave him the groundhog to hold on his wrist with a special glove. He dropped the groundhog somehow, and then the groundhog later died of internal injuries and it was a big scandal because the zoo tried to cover it up because de Blasio controls their funding. [Do yourself a favor and read about it here.]

Oh my gosh. No, I did not hear about that. We were really not planning on anyone holding a groundhog at this event, if we need to make that clear. 

So you think that’s where de Blasio went wrong, trying to hold it? 

Yeah, we would not have been trying to hold this groundhog for sure.

You wouldn’t want any de Blasio-style groundhog scandal at Dacha.

No, no. Especially if we were paying $7,000 for a trained groundhog.

On February 3, are you going to call Punxsutawney Phil to make sure you can book him for next year?

That is a fabulous idea. I will be doing that.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer