Before the mayor opens the ceremony, before the news crews arrive, and before the crowds react to his forecasts, Pisgah Pete will eat his usual breakfast of one blueberry, one pecan, and one tiny heap of lettuce. Pisgah Pete is a squirrel and Saturday is a big day for him.
Beginning at 9 a.m. on Groundhog Day (February 2) at the Blue Ridge Bakery on Main Street in Brevard, North Carolina, Pete will predict the weather as well as this year’s Super Bowl champion, as he has done correctly for the past four years. (He’s been perceptive on his weather forecasts, too, although mountain climate patterns are a little more nebulous than football outcomes.) While Pennsylvanians have their Punxsutawney Phil—and the South has plenty of weather-detecting animals, too—here in Brevard, the white-furred Pisgah Pete (named for the surrounding Pisgah National Forest) reigns. He’s the chief forecaster on what locals call and what the mayor declares “White Squirrel Day” in a nod to the striking rodents that roam wild here.
“We don’t just have a festival to celebrate white squirrels, we put ours to work,” Mayor Jimmy Harris says. Harris will open the events with a proclamation before Pete begins his annual ritual. “I don’t know if it’s through practice or reasoning or if Pisgah Pete has a crystal ball, but he predicts with a lot of accuracy.”
The stage for White Squirrel Day is a giant cage with a runway down the middle. Pete appears in the cage from behind a curtain and chooses which side of the platform to approach—each has a card denoting an answer: more cold weather or warmth; Patriots or Rams; and a few more questions that will be decided by the audience on Saturday. “He wanders around thinking about things until he stops in front of a choice and poses,” Pete’s caretaker Jennifer Burgin says. “He usually does the classic squirrel pose, sits on his haunches, puts his hands on his chest, and looks around.”
Last year’s Super Bowl prediction was especially theatrical. Pete popped out from behind the curtain, sauntered over to the Eagles card, and sunk his teeth into it. “We had a lot of Eagles fans in the house, so folks were laughing and cheering,” says Ann Sharpsteen, the event founder. “We were still live on the air when Pete then crawled over to the other side, stood on the Patriots card, and started peeing. He knows how to milk every bit of anticipation and drama out of the situation.”
Pete was discovered as an infant when his tree branch home on the Brevard College campus crashed down, leaving him with brain trauma and a broken jaw. Burgin, who is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, has cared for him since. “You can’t make a wild animal into a full pet, but Pete is taken care of,” Burgin says. “He has a wholesome diet, and he hasn’t met a nut he doesn’t like. He knows his job in life is to be a squirrel ambassador to the public.”
Pete appears at events that help fundraise for wildlife animal rehabilitators at the White Squirrel Institute, including the February 2 event and the White Squirrel Festival each Memorial Day weekend. Nearly a third of Brevard’s squirrels are snow-colored because of a genetic mutation. They’re not albino, and most have patches of black and brown fur.
Their origin story is a tale as old as time: White squirrels escaped from an overturned carnival truck in Florida in the late 1940s, a doting uncle captured a pair and brought them to his niece in North Carolina, and those two bolted into the woods for a love fest. Their offspring form one of the world’s few wild white squirrel populations (there are others in Kenton, Tennessee, Marionville, Missouri, and Olney, Illinois).
“I don’t know how you go about doing a squirrel census, but at least twenty-five percent of ours are white squirrels and we celebrate them,” Mayor Harris says. He added that Pete’s powers have been drawing extra attention to his town. “I’ll be inundated with phone calls from Las Vegas bookies,” he says. “I bet NOAA and NASA will want to know his predictions, too. It might seem like we’re in this for fun, but we’re all in it for accuracy. I put my faith in Pete.”