In Memory of His Many Seasons of Life at the Tennessee Aquarium
It was a spring day in 2009, April 20, when a tiny furball was born in Pennsylvania. Woodchuck pups, also known as kits, start off really small. This particular Woodchuck weighed around 26 grams at birth, roughly the same weight as a AA battery. It’s perhaps the most appropriate weight comparison because this little ‘chuck was full of energy, in spite of his size.
It was our good fortune that this particular Woodchuck was born in the care of a licensed wildlife breeder, who had been contacted by Susie Grant, the Tennessee Aquarium’s guest engagement manager. Susie was looking to expand the Aquarium’s educational program opportunities through the addition of another native animal. One of only two true hibernators in the Southeast, Woodchucks — also known as Groundhogs — lead fascinating lives and play a key role in the environment. (Also, they are absolutely adorable.)
This little guy was no exception, and Susie was looking forward to meeting him after he grew up a bit and became more independent from his mother.
On a summer morning in June, Susie and her family packed up their car in Chattanooga and headed to Pennsylvania. It’s probably worth noting that she was on maternity leave at the time, but she really wanted to make this journey.
Upon arrival, Susie was smitten with this little Groundhog. Before heading south, she had to make several stops to pick up the necessary ingredients for the Groundhog’s formula since he was still being bottle-fed at the time. With her daughter, infant son, husband and a baby Groundhog, Susie began the 12-hour drive back home, making lots of stops along the way to feed the two hungry mouths, ‘chuck and human alike.
Once at the Aquarium, Chattanooga Chuck — his new name — settled in right away. Susie recalls his energetic manners and cooperative nature. “He was full of energy and curiosity and bonded well with me and a couple of others on our staff,” she says.
Groundhogs are sometimes known as “Whistle Pigs” due to the high-pitched vocalizations they make whenever they are alarmed or excited. Chuck often whistled when Susie arrived at work.
“He would make a humming sound like a little helicopter whenever he was really content, and he would whistle when I would come in each morning,” Susie recalls. “There was a point that he’d whistle every time I would come in the door throughout the day.”
Many of the Aquarium’s animals are trained to perform certain behaviors that help animal experts like Grant to care for these creatures. By using treats as rewards, they can positively reinforce behaviors such as stepping onto a scale to be weighed. Other animals, like River Otters, are trained to present paws or teeth on cue to help caretakers examine these features.
Chuck mastered his training quickly and was able to be brought out into the public spaces to meet guests in a relatively short amount of time. This had a lot to do with the trust he had developed with Susie. It was a bond that strengthened over the years. “We don’t normally like to attribute human characteristics to animals, but Chuck trusted me and seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with guests,” she says.
Susie would set up a table and stump and bring Chuck out. When the door was opened to his behind-the-scene habitat, he rarely hesitated to mosey out. As Chuck ambled around, Susie would discuss the special adaptations that help Groundhogs survive in the wild. “No matter what day it was, it was always his choice to come out,” she says.
Many people came to love and appreciate the largest member of the squirrel family through these programs. And, more often than not, his calm demeanor would indicate to Susie that guests could gently touch his soft coat – making a connection and deepening their appreciation for this native animal.
Literally millions of people came to know Chattanooga Chuck through these programs and his special Groundhog Day prognostications. Chuck made his first seasonal forecast at the Aquarium in February of 2010 and rose to fame as one of the Weather Channel’s “Top Groundhogs to Watch” and appeared live on CNN as well as numerous other media appearances.
Even though Feb. 2 is at the tail end of his hibernation period, Chuck always was ready to rise and shine on his “day in the sun.” He might be sleepy in the days leading up to Groundhog Day, but surprisingly, he always perked up to venture out for his fans. Susie provided him with plenty of bananas, his favorite treat, on Groundhog Day and some years he might go back to his “two-story condo” at the Aquarium and doze for a couple of days afterward.
In the wild, Groundhogs face a number of challenges. Most sources cite a median life expectancy of just three to six years. Thanks to the love and care he received at the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Chuck lived well past that.
Like any aging animal, Chuck dealt with some arthritis and other minor afflictions in his later years. Chuck’s care team provided him with everything he needed, and on many days, he was as chipper as ever. But recently, his health began declining.
Chattanooga Chuck died in his sleep last night. Flurries are blowing on the cold, blustery winds in Chattanooga this morning as one season seems to give way to yet another.
"Chuck will always be remembered as a dear friend of Susie, the education family, and a wonderful ambassador for the Tennessee Aquarium," says Dr. Chris Keller, the Aquarium's veterinarian. "His long life of ten and half years was a testament to the love and care he received throughout his tenure as the star of Chattanooga's Groundhog Day celebration for many years. We will all miss him."