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Queens prairie dogs see six more weeks of winter

By Cynthia Koons

Flushing Phil and Corona Kate added to the confusion on Groundhog Day Monday morning when they emerged from their huts at the Queens Zoo and wandered around aimlessly sniffing for peanuts.

Queens politicians, who huddled around the prairie dogs at the zoo in Flushing Meadows Corona Park that morning, insisted the borough’s “grounddogs” gave a chilling prediction by seeing their shadows on Groundhog Day.

The Queens dogs were on the same wavelength as Punxsutawney Phil, the nation’s hallmark groundhog, by predicting six more weeks of winter. Earlier in the day, however, Staten Island Chuck popped up and declared a premature spring.

“You have (one) in Staten Island saying there won’t be winter and two in Queens saying there will be six more weeks of winter,” Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) said. “So clearly New York is right.”

Sixth graders from PS 150 in Sunnyside held homemade signs and sang a homespun tune for the event to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the sun,” the class sang. “And if I see my shadow, there is six more weeks to come… As winter marches on.”

The class teacher, Ilene Balsamo, brought the sixth graders to Grounddog Day at the zoo as part of a series of extra-curricular trips she schedules throughout the year.

“We try to take them out and expose them to a lot of things,” she said. “I take them on weekends because their parents don’t have the chance to take them out very much, especially being in an urban environment.”

The kids were excited at the prospect of an early spring. They wore mock groundhog ears and buck teeth and held signs that read “Kate Bring the Sun” and “We are Chilly Philly.”

“Snow days are the best, but spring is for everything — you can play football,” said Ozan Cetinkaya, a student at PS 150. “We miss playing all the sports and we get tired of getting sick.”

It was climbing into the 30s, a break from a seemingly endless cold spell in January, when the prairie dogs made their annual appearance Monday morning.

“Is this not a spring day?” Borough President Helen Marshall asked. “It sure is compared to what we’re used to.”

Marshall and Weprin addressed the zoo’s potential financial troubles in light of the fact that Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut funding for the Queens and Brooklyn Zoos in his preliminary budget for the second consecutive year.

“We’re going to make it a priority in the City Council,” said Weprin, chairman of the powerful Finance Committee. “I think they just went back to the same cuts they made last year. In the end, the mayor didn’t fight us on it and I hope he won’t again.”

Marshall said the potential closing of the zoo received a lot of attention in her office.

“When people heard about the zoo closing, we never got so many calls,” Marshall said. “We still have to work hard because the mayor did not include the zoo in his budget.”

Weprin is confident that the zoo will not be adversely affected by the mayor’s budget.

“I predict that the money will be back in the budget and we’ll have a thriving zoo again,” he said.

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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