NEW YORK (Reuters) - A restless groundhog that squirmed out of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's hands and fell to the floor at this year's Groundhog Day celebration has died, zoo officials said on Thursday.
New York has held the annual Feb. 2 Groundhog Day event since 1981 with the help of famed rodent weather forecaster "Staten Island Chuck," whose shadow predicts whether the winter will be lengthy or short.
But the rotund rodent that escaped de Blasio's grasp and later died was not the famed Chuck. It was his companion, "Charlotte," the New York Post reported.
Citing unnamed sources, The Post reported that Charlotte died in her enclosure at the Staten Island Zoo a week after being dropped. She appeared to have suffered internal organ damage.
The zoo did not publicize the death or notify the mayor's office about it, the paper reported.
Charlotte was secretly used in the 2014 Groundhog Day Ceremony by the zoo and presented as the Staten Island Chuck, the paper reported. The zoo made the switch to guard against a replay of an incident in which Chuck bit the hand of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the 2009 ceremony.
Staten Island Zoo officials said in a statement on Thursday that they performed a thorough medical examination of the groundhog after the fall and found it to be healthy.
The groundhog had engaged in several events between Groundhog Day and when it died and may have sustained injures that caused its death in that time, the statement said.
"It appears unlikely that the animal’s death is related to the events on Groundhog Day," it said.
It did not identify the dead groundhog by name and did not address claims that Charlotte was switched.
New York's annual groundhog celebrations are an homage to the world famous Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where groundhogs have given weather predictions starting in 1887.
As tradition has it, groundhogs emerge from their dwellings every Feb. 2 to a crowd of onlookers. If they see their shadow and retreat, that means an additional six weeks of winter. If they do not, that is interpreted as a forecast for an early spring.
The popularity of the tradition swelled after the release of the 1993 comedy "Groundhog Day," starring Bill Murray, and the events now attract thousands of spectators from as far away as Australia.
Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham