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African pygmy hedgehog at Oregon Zoo predicts early spring

PORTLAND, Ore. Punxsutawney Phil may be calling for six more weeks of winter, but here in the Northwest it's safe to pack away those mittens.

So says Whiskers J., the Oregon Zoo's African pygmy hedgehog, who did not see his shadow this morning, meaning an early spring could be in store.

At 10:30 a.m. Monday, a small crowd gathered in the zoo entry plaza to watch the proceedings, some bearing signs with slogans like "Hedgehogs RULE!" and "HEY, Punxsutawney Phil! You Ain't Nothin' but a Groundhog!!"

"Hedgehogs are the real weather experts of the animal world," said zoo curator Michael Illig, who presided over this morning's Hedgehog Day festivities. "Punxsutawney Phil and his ilk are relative newcomers to the game. When European immigrants to the United States realized their new home didn't have hedgehogs, they turned to the groundhog out of necessity. But Whiskers J. is bringing the holiday back to its origins."

Tradition and cuteness might have to count for a lot.

According to records from StormFax Weather Almanac, Phil's predictions have been correct about 39 percent of the time. Oregon Zoo hedgehogs have been slightly more successful with a 40 percent accuracy rate.

"The zoo's hedgehogs have fared about the same as Punxsutawney Phil which admittedly is not that great," Illig said. "Last year though, our hedgehog Mayzie did predict six more weeks of winter, which was pretty accurate for this region. We had major snowstorms and freezing rain in February and one of the wettest Marches on record."

Whiskers J., one of five hedgehogs born at the zoo last summer, is making his forecasting debut this year. His distinctive moniker was selected by a zoo fan who bid on naming rights during November's comedy night at the zoo a conservation fundraiser that earned $28,000 for the Portland Audubon Society and the Tanzania-based Ruaha Carnivore Project.

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