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Published: Monday, 1/24/2011

Holland Huckleberry crosses over from predictor to perpetual pet

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Holland Huckleberry, a seasonal seer for 10 years, is now a whisper in the winter wind.

Spoiled rotten as the much-beloved pet of Charlie and Terri Hoag of Springfield Township, the groundhog known fondly as Hucky has died.

He's been preserved forever in a pose atop his blue-and-white polka-dot blanket, the same blanket that cradled Hucky when Mr. Hoag found the orphan crying outside its burrow a day after a coyote carried off its mother.

Although the groundhog died in July, falling asleep at supper time and never waking up, the news of his passing is just being announced as the Hoags send out notices, coveted invitations, to the annual Groundhog Day get-together at their home.

"One good little groundhog!" is proclaimed on the invitation, just above a photograph of Holland Huckleberry and the dates 4/02/2000-7/15/2010. During that dash between 2000 and 2010, he was a furry flash of fun for folks who each Feb. 2 looked forward to his shadowy (or not) forecast: Early spring? Six more weeks of winter?

"His predicting days are done," said Mr. Hoag, seated in his home just a few feet from Hucky, now a perpetual pet, professionally preserved by an Onsted, Mich., taxidermist who captured the look in the groundhog's dark eyes … that look that said "What a life."

What a life indeed.

If Hucky wanted, he had the run of the Hoags' home in Lucas County. He sometimes fell asleep after watching TV in bed, his chin nestled in the crook of Mr. Hoag's arm.

The wild-turned-tame animal feasted on peanut butter, dried cranberries, and his all-time favorite food, fish-shaped cheese crackers. He lapped up sweet tea to wet his whistle. He was fond of Brazil nuts, just the right size to clutch between paws.

Lucky Hucky turned local celebrity after word spread about his annual predictions; he had a 65 percent accuracy rate during his decade.

His forecast a year ago was spot on, Mr. Hoag said. "Winter broke Feb. 28, just as Hucky predicted."

Yes, life was good for the pudgy prognosticator, and when he died, he left behind question marks.

What now? Would Hucky make predictions as the Great Groundhog in the Sky?

Or, would a new groundhog carry on the tradition? Easier said than done. The state is a bit fussy about who can keep a wild animal in a bedroom near the TV remote.

Mr. Hoag said the Ohio Department of Natural Resources rejected his request for a permit to "adopt" a groundhog from his own property. "I've got hundreds of 'em out there in the woods," he said.

Making a federal case of it was pondered by Mr. Hoag, but he took the high road. The resources department, he said, gave him names of -- get this -- groundhog breeders. Who knew? Seriously? There are groundhog breeders?

There are breeders for just about anything, said Scott Butterworth, wildlife management supervisor for Ohio Wildlife District 2.

"Typically people are not allowed to take animals from the wild," he said, but breeders can provide groundhogs for people who want to have one for a pet.

Some people like groundhogs the way other people like dogs or cats, Mr. Butterworth said, adding that breeders and pet owners need to have the correct permits and paperwork.

By the time Mr. Hoag was told he couldn't take a wild animal from his woods, and by the time he contacted breeders, no baby groundhogs were available last year. Now he's on a waiting list for a wee one, and then the tradition will continue.

This year, guests will gather to pay their respects during the 11th annual Holland Huckleberry Day Celebration (no, it is not open to the public.)

Besides memorial tributes and a groundhog-themed pastry contest, a prediction is likely. Substituting for the dearly departed Hucky: a stuffed-with-fluff toy.

Toledo Area Metroparks' Wildwood Willie, scheduled for an appearance Feb. 2 at Wildwood Preserve, is stuffed, but was a real live groundhog many winters ago.

Burial services for Hucky's remains won't be held until the ground thaws. For now, his remains are in the freezer. The family requests that any tributes be made to Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio.

During his life, Hucky raised $2,400 to help send Springfield Township veterans to Washington to visit the National World War II Memorial.

For years, Hucky and a 300-pound groundhog carved from wood were featured on an award-winning, patriotic-themed Holland Huckleberry float in area parades.

Winnings were donated to Honor Flight, and guests at the Feb. 2 celebrations donate to Honor Flight as well.

What with the parade float, the wooden statue, the annual parties … the Hoags spent thousands of dollars on the famous furry fella. "He's been the most expensive pet in my life," said Mr. Hoag, and the tone in his voice carries no regrets.

So what was it about that crying critter that tugged at Mr. Hoag's heartstrings?

When he was a young boy living in Wood County, Mr. Hoag's neighbor had a pet groundhog that lived under a porch. "It would run up and sit beside you."

Cool beans, he thought then, and when he found the just-born groundhog more than a decade ago, he couldn't just walk away.

Initially, Mr. Hoag fed the baby soy milk from an eyedropper, every couple hours day and night. Within weeks, the groundhog graduated to solid food, and in no time was considered the family's friendly pet.

Although huggable, Hucky was a cagey critter. Three times he escaped from confined areas after chewing through wood or screens.

"He had three chances," Mr. Hoag said. "He could have gone back to the woods, and I probably would have let him."

But each time, Hucky was right there, sitting on the step with that look in his eye.

Run off? No need.

He already was home.

Contact Janet Romaker at: jromaker@theblade.com or 419-724-6006



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