By Drew Singer
PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Punxsutawney Phil, America's most famous groundhog, emerged from his burrow on Saturday to the glare of cameras and the cheers of thousands of spectators and offered his annual weather prognostication: An early spring is coming.
Each year thousands of fans from as far away as Australia and Russia attend the wildly popular event in this tiny western Pennsylvania town, depicted in the 1993 comedy "Groundhog Dog" starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.
According to legend, if the rodent emerges from his hole and sees his shadow, six more weeks of freezing temperatures and snow are on the way.
This year, however, Phil did not see his shadow, meaning an early spring should be expected.
As temperatures hovered in the single-digits, the furry rodent was held aloft and relayed his prognostication to the Groundhog Club president who was dressed in a top hat and tuxedo.
"This is the most important weather prediction to be found anywhere on the globe," Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley told the crowd gathered hours before sunrise.
Festivities began in the early hours when shuttle buses carried fans from nearby parking lots and the community to Phil's home on Gobbler's Knob to await the big event. A few hours later, after a fireworks display, Phil made his appearance.
"It doesn't matter where you are from, if you get the Groundhog Day gene it is a pilgrimage you are going to take," said Bill Cooper, a retired banker and member of the inner circle of the Groundhog Club, a non-profit that perpetuates the legend of Punxsutawney Phil.
"It breaks up the monotony of winter. It has existed for 127 years, not because it is the best meteorological science known to man but because it is fun," he added in a recent interview.
Residents in the town of 6,000 have been looking to groundhogs for weather predictions since 1887.
The rodent has seen his shadow the majority of the time, according to groundhog.org, which claims his predictions are nearly 100 percent correct.
"He is right almost all the time," said Cooper, although some weather agencies question his accuracy. "We figure if you want to argue the science, you have lost the point of the day. It is not something we are worried about."
A few years ago Phil's international fame sparked concerns about his well-being and led to calls to replace him with a robot.
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) questioned whether the rodent should be coaxed out his burrow, exposed to cameras and crowds and handled by humans. The Groundhog Club dismissed the suggestion as ridiculous and assured critics that Phil was fine.
For fans unable to make the trip to Punxsutawney there is a web link on www.groundhog.org. The festivities are also carried live on the Pennsylvania network PCN.
"It is a people event," said Cooper. "if you treat it that way you can have a lot of fun with it."
(Writing by Patricia Reaney; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Vicki Allen)