- by Jenna McGuire

I'm bracing myself for an onslaught of opposition, but I have been thinking about speaking up about this for years, and after the death of Wiarton Willie IV in 2020, I regretted that I didn't voice my concerns earlier.

An Open Letter to the Town of South Bruce Peninsula, for your consideration.

I would like to introduce what may be controversial suggestion: I think the town of Wiarton should reconsider continuing to keep live groundhogs for the purpose of the Wiarton Willie Festival.

As a local wildlife biologist, I have always been uncomfortable with the town of Wiarton continuing to keep a wild animal for the purposes of entertainment.

Places like Marineland, circuses and small entertainment petting zoos have begun to shutdown and/or change their practices to improve animal welfare. And it may even become part of legislation in the near future. Particularly because the keeping of wild animals for entertainment purposes is not justifiable as necessary or ethical in anyway.

I am also concerned that the housing, habitat and care provided may not be as robust as possible, particularly as a Wiarton Willie IV passed away from a tooth abscess in 2020, a condition that a certified and professional zoo would have caught and have been easily able to treat with antibiotics or a simple dental procedure.

Tourism is important to the Saugeen Peninsula, but it is also causing extreme social and ecological pressures. It is very important that visitors to the region can understand how they can help protect the ecosystems they visit.

At a time where we are desperately asking visitors to respect the land, waters and species of the region, it is not a good look to keep local wildlife in captivity in subpar conditions, for the sake of a single annual event. This hypocritical perspective does not model the behavior we would want to see from others.

There is perception that Wiarton Willie and its festival provides good press for Wiarton. This is partially true. The festival is a great event with good draw, that is for sure, but groundhog obsession component does get mocked outside our region. And I don’t think being the butt of a joke is the ideal goal. Most folks outside of Bruce-Grey County I have ever spoken to sort of laugh at and look down on the whole concept, like it is some quaint little spectacle of rural backwardness.

This has been exasperated by the various deaths, scandals and press around Wiarton Willie deaths which don’t look good optically, as they have involved everything from coverups, to Wiarton Willie dying of preventable conditions, to poor housing causing deaths, to funerals involving fake taxidermized imposters with pennies on their eyes. It seems like the management of a live animal is the most difficult part of the whole event, and may be one to call into question.

I don’t believe that it is necessarily due to a lack of effort or failure on the part of those who have cared for Willie, but rather, that the task is rather too much to administrate properly with local resources.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the concept of Wiarton Willie is that Wiarton is interesting enough on its own without the need to be represented by an albino groundhog image that has its origins in a drunk fellow photographing a white furry hat.

Wiarton is nestled cutely into the Niagara Escarpment, a globally significant landform designated as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, on par with the Galapagos Islands and the Great Barrier Reef of Austrailia.

And the grandeur of the escarpment can be enjoyed everywhere in town. When one descends the north or south hills into Wiarton, there are charming views of the village valley and its verdant canopy.

When one goes to the harbour, the cliffs rise nearby for stunning views, and the sloping escarpment lands can be viewed across the bay, and along the world-class Colpoy’s Bay drive featuring the bluest waters with visible shipwrecks.

Malcolm Bluff

The town has a rich Indigenous, fishing, fur trading, shipping, timbering, industry and agricultural history.

Shipwrecks dot the bay and one of the most stunning historic train stations in Ontario can be viewed at the harbour.

Just outside of town you can go caving in what is likely the most accessible cave on the Peninsula, although not without its own grandeur and majestic pillars.

The local quarries feature a rock so unique to Wiarton it is named after the former township. Plus it features some of the rarest and most spectacular fossils in the world.

You can also head north just outside of town visit an abandoned mansion dripping in old roses and historic garden plants.

You can drive along an old portage that has been in use for at least 3,000 years, through the largest and most spectacular wetland system on the Saugeen Peninsula. At its end you will find an archipelago of islands so rife with rich ecosystems, diversity, orchids, carnivorous plants, fish and cultural heritage I would argue it is a nationally significant region.

Then a quick jaunt south takes you through giant ancient sand dunes to waterfalls, rapids, good canoeing and one the largest sand beaches in Ontario rimmed with a globally rare dune ecosystem replete with rare species. When your town has all these things, why would you spend time talking about a groundhog you keep in a pen?

The Wiarton Willie Festival has become an important and beloved event for a winter reprise, social connection and celebrating local identity. This thing is, this is not because of the groundhog. It is because of the incredible community effort and sense of comradery. It is because of the spirit of the people of Wiarton. Now that is something worth celebrating.

I think the festival and brand is worth keeping of course, and it can even still celebrate Wiarton Willie. But what I think it is worth reconsidering the need to have an actual groundhog in the future.

After all, the first Wiarton Willie events featured fictional groundhogs, which in fact could be just as fun with possible book, animation and art spinoffs.

If the town remains resolute in keeping a live animal captive for the purpose of the festival, I think considering professional zookeeping expertise or certification would be a responsible course of action. Tradition is valuable, but it can always be improved upon.

Kind Regards,
Jenna McGuire



P.S. – During the initial controversy around the Piping Plovers and town interference in SAR legislation I reached out to the Mayor to express my concern, but also offer my services as an expert in local natural heritage interpretation. There are many opportunities presented in the presence of Piping Plovers on the beach and I was happy to help provide insight on them, such as interpretive trails, programming and unique branding.

Although that offer was not taken up, I would apply the same offer here, in regards to other ways to view the town brand and learning more about the rich natural and cultural heritage of South Bruce Peninsula.

Colpoys Bay


 Photographs – top: Wikimedia; bottom: Town of South Bruce Peninsula




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