Found in the middle of the road by Smith Lake: A mystery critter.
Description: A furry ball, eyes barely open, the size of a tea cup.
The call: “You’ve got to come right away,” Ginger Whitworth’s sister, Cyndi, said by cellphone that day. “I don’t know what this is but I know you don’t have one.”
No, Ginger Whitworth didn’t have one — a baby groundhog, as it turned out — but the unofficial Dr. Doolittle of Smith Lake rushed to the scene with her ever-ready bottle of goat milk and named “it” Smith Lake Jake. In the seven years since that day, Smith Lake Jake has leapt to stardom, not just with annual Feb. 2 weather predictions, but for year-round activities. Whitworth and her husband, Heath, specialize in guiding Jake’s steps to celebrity status.
At first Jake was just another critter to be helped — and things might have stayed calm if Birmingham’s FOX 6 hadn’t heard about him and offered the spotlight on Groundhog Day when he was a mere child, not yet a year old. The critter might have languished at the Whitworth’s Graysville home, taking periodic holidays to their place on his namesake lake. But the call did come and Smith Lake Jake’s comments, artfully translated by his witty “human mother,” were a hit. Libraries and schools sent requests, the Birmingham Suzuki dealership invited him to be a spokes-groundhog and do infomercials, a local politician wanted his endorsement, the Birmingham Zoo made him the centerpiece of its own Feb. 2 celebration, and so on.
“I’m a very private person, not so much a people person as a critter person,” says Whitworth, whose yard often becomes a dropping place for animals in need. “We’ve always had dogs and then when squirrels fell out of trees, I’d bottle-feed them every three hours for six to eight months because it takes so long to get their eyes open. Then I’d put them back out in the yard. I couldn’t let them die.”
The fact is, Whitworth can’t say no and doesn’t want to. Smith Lake Jake’s “sibling” list is long and the Whitworth house is warmly populated by a menagerie. Nine dogs, among them a Lhasa apso, Shih Tzu, Chihuahua, Yorkshire terrier, Jack Russell, a long-haired weenie dog and a papillon sport names like Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, Winnie the Pooh Bear, Dr. Baird Bear, etc. Luke, the latest squirrel, soars from the tops of furniture onto Whitworth’s shoulder (where he seems happiest), while Miss Scarlett the tortoise lumbers along admirably, given her impressive girth.
“She’s 4 years old now but she’ll get as big as a Volkswagen and live 150 to 200 years,” Whitworth explains. Gone now, but welcomed when he was dropped off, was an iguana that got along happily with the rest.
Three cats, dubbed Pineapple, Judge Judy and Snowbe Obi-One Kenobi Ball, mostly live outdoors. And, thanks to Jake’s “baby mama” Katie Cake (another rescue who stayed around), the resident groundhog count is currently five, including heir apparent Smith Lake Jake Jr.
Yet there’s only one celebrity in the place, only one animal with his own website, three Facebook pages, two LinkedIn accounts, YouTube videos galore and a full social calendar. He’s also the only one with an ever-growing gaggle of big-name friends. “Just friend him on Facebook and you can see the list,” Whitworth says. “Leonardo DiCaprio, Reese Witherspoon, Donald Sutherland, Bradley Cooper and Robert Downey Jr. are some. Alfred Hitchcock is friends with him, which just cracks me up. He’s got friends in Italy, in Africa and all over the world. They think it’s so cool to be friends with a groundhog.”
When she’s not booking the next groundhog gig, rushing to the grocery to buy staples (Jake is addicted to Keebler’s Pecan Sandies and Honey Smack Cereal with Barber’s Vitamin D milk), Whitworth tends the social media. There’s a video to be shot and posted for each holiday (often seen on YouTube), birthday greetings to be delivered to each Facebook friend on his/her birthday, and messages to answer. “I answer all the emails,” she says. “I get them down to maybe 10, then go back the next day and he has another 200.”
In between, there’s the wardrobe of 125 tiny hats to manage. Jake, it seems, collects chapeaux the way Imelda Marcos scarfed up shoes. From his Punxsutawney Phil-inspired top hat to happy flowers and winter toboggan caps, the groundhog head is fashionably covered.
“I buy stuffed animals and use their hats,” Whitworth says. “Then when we go to schools, Jake asks the children who their favorite groundhog is, and when they shout ‘Smith Lake Jake,’ we throw the stuffed animals into the crowd as a treat.”
On a recent day, Smith Lake Jake was comfy on the bed alongside dog friend Winnie the Pooh Bear, both absorbed in an episode of “Judge Judy.” On workdays, he stars in the videos and even voices his own dialog through moving groundhog lips, a “talent trick” Whitworth chooses to keep secret.
“You raise them and they think you’re mama,” says Whitworth of her protÃ©gÃ©. “We had no idea it would get this big. We don’t do this for money. We’ve just had fun with him. He’s so sweet, he just loves people.”
Here’s where to find (and perhaps friend) Alabama Power’s favorite groundhog:
- Facebook: Smith Lake Jake or Smith Lake Jake sites are best; connect with Jake and his “mom” here for potential bookings.
- Website: www.easysite.com/smithlakejake
- LinkedIn: Smith Lake Jake, listed as self-employed and a graduate of the Pennsylvania School for Gifted Groundhogs.
- YouTube: Smith Lake Jake.
Jake Fun Facts
- Jake’s Groundhog Day method has nothing to do with shadows. If the hair on his back stands up, we’re doomed to more winter.
- He’s about 7 years old (life expectancy in captivity can run to 15 years).
- Jake’s forecasting accuracy is 95 percent, according to the slightly biased Whitworth, who’s a partner in the prognosticating process.
- Smith Lake Jake predictions have included Taylor Hicks’ American Idol win, several baby gender picks and the outcome of University of Alabama football games.
- A college sorority once tried to steal him as a hazing prank — unsuccessfully.
- Jake returns to Smith Lake often but after one scary escape into nearby woods, he’s content to remain inside the fenced in yard.