Boro’s furry weather dogs predict extended cold spell

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Flushing Meadows Phil and Corona Kate defied the predictions of frost-weary children by catching a glimpse of their rotund shadows Sunday, dooming the borough to six more weeks of an already brutal winter.

The typically light-hearted Groundhog Day festivities in Flushing Meadows Corona Park assumed a more somber tone this year only one day after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on its descent to Earth, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

“This is an event that at its root celebrates the renewal of life,” said city Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe in his opening remarks, alluding both to the loss of Columbia as well as the disappearance of four teenage boys in the waters off City Island last week. “An event like this reminds us that despite tragedy, life goes on.”

With that in mind, he turned the stage over to the borough’s two furry weather prognosticators, a pair of prairie dogs that live at the Queens Zoo and appear to lap up the attention ordinarily lavished exclusively on groundhogs, their plumper cousins in the rodent family.

When the doors to their wooden home swung open to bathe their dark lair in sunlight, Corona Kate and Flushing Meadows Phil moseyed out like a pair of bleary-eyed teenagers waking up from a long slumber.

They snooped around a bit and stretched their dainty paws before one threw in the towel and retreated to the doorway.

Robin Dalton, the Queens Zoo’s director, made the call: Six more weeks of winter.

“This has been a harsh winter so far, but if it keeps getting better like this, we’ll all be happy,” Dalton said, relishing the 40-plus degree weather that felt downright balmy Sunday after a string of days when the mercury was banished to the teens.

The outcome flew in the face of the youthful prognosticators who marked their own expectations of Kate and Phil’s shadow dance on a display board, which tallied 15 votes for a short winter and three for a long one.

Although adults had their fun, the annual Groundhog Day celebration was geared toward the dozens of children who gathered around the plexiglass case to behold the prairie dogs chomp away at peanut shells without regard to the sea of eyes.

Angelica Rodriguez, 6, of Glendale pressed her face against the clear cage to secure the best view of Kate and Phil.

“They look nice,” she said. “They look cute.”

Some of the older children had a chance to pepper zoo officials with zoological questions, although not all of them were answered. When one sixth grader asked how the prairie dogs reproduce, the zoo’s education curator, Tom Hurtabise, feigned ignorance.

“All I know is they go inside their tunnels for winter, and in February or March, little babies come out,” he said.

Students in Ilene Balsamo’s sixth grade class from PS 150 in Sunnyside, all wearing brown woodchuck hats cut from paper, disagreed in their assessments of the seasons.

“I hate winter. It’s too cold,” said Hye Ji Hong, 11, of Sunnyside.

“I want snow,” said Priscilla Solis, 11, also of Sunnyside, who wants to see banks of white stuff rising high across the ground. “Then we get to swim in the snow.”

For those who were disappointed by the wintry prognosis, City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) proposed his own solution that would spare the borough from at least some of the next six frigid weeks.

“Politics is the art of deal-making,” he said as he proposed a compromise with the prairie dogs. “Perhaps we can get just four more weeks of winter.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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