Mojave Max, the desert tortoise in Las Vegas who marks the arrival of spring each year when he emerges from his burrow, has always existed in the long shadow of Punxsutawney Phil — the ultimate case of a big star in a small market.
It’s Phil who nabs the national headlines and knowing nods from high-profile news anchors when he is yanked out on Feb. 2 to let the nation know how much longer winter will last
The groundhog from Pennsylvania has always hogged the limelight when it comes to weather prognostication — a Goliath among all creatures great and small. Even this story, which is about Mojave Max, starts off about Phil. See how it is?
The rodent’s public relations team wasn’t overly impressed when it heard Mojave Max had emerged from his burrow last Friday to declare the start of spring in Las Vegas.
“Ever heard of Mojave Max?” I asked Katie Donald, the executive director of the Groundhog Club in Punxsutawney.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t,” Donald said.
“Are you aware of other animals that do, um, seasonal work?” I asked.
“We’re aware of few,” Donald said. “There’s a lobster in Maine — I can’t think of his name. And there’s a few imitator groundhogs in the Pennsylvania area that we don’t acknowledge.”
(The lobster is Passy Pete, by the way, and he predicts if summer will last another six weeks by opening a scroll with a claw. Forecast: It might be boiling hot, Pete. Beware.)
But Pete is in Maine, a far-flung state that is famous mostly for Stephen King, lighthouses and lobster rolls. There’s also Mojave Maxine, a desert tortoise at the Living Desert in Palm Desert. She emerged from her burrow Jan. 31.
So, how is it that Mojave Max — a desert tortoise in a city that is internationally iconic and draws the biggest stars to its 24-hour spotlight — isn’t much known beyond the Clark County line?
“We’re working on that,” concedes Dawn Barraclough, a spokeswoman for Springs Preserve, where Mojave Max lives.
Around 1994, as part of the Desert Conservation Program’s effort to bring attention to the desert tortoise’s threatened species status, one was identified in the area and moved to the Red Rock Canyon visitor center. He was named Mojave Max.
The resident desert tortoise, about the size of a football, has been identifying seasonal changes publicly since 2000. when the first Mojave Max emergence contest was held. When Max emerged from his burrow, the biologists would note that it signaled the start of spring in the area.
It was more low key back then — especially by Vegas standards — as the Las Vegas Strip was on the cusp of going big with resorts like Bellagio that brought in rare white tigers and dancing fountains. If Punxsutawney Phil were ever to move to Vegas, he’d probably have his own residency at a casino.
Max, seemingly, would prefer his residency to remain a dirt hole.
Heather Green, a spokeswoman for the county who works for the Desert Conservation Program, said the earliest that Mojave Max has emerged from his burrow in his years as a seasonal forecaster is Feb. 14. The latest is April 17.
Last year, biologists decided it was better for Max to not be bothered at Red Rock Canyon anymore, and he retired to a quieter life. But the tradition still carried on with a new Mojave Max — a 14-year-old desert tortoise living in captivity at Springs Preserve. In showbiz parlance, a casting change. Roger Moore in for Sean Connery. (In James Bond fashion, Max currently lives with four female tortoises on 15 acres of open space at Springs Preserve.)
Max’s profile has also been raised on social media, where the tortoise has a Twitter account.
“Yep! It seemed like a good day to EMERGE!! My official emergence date and time: March 23, 2018 at 11:11 am! SPRING HAS SPRUNG,” the tweet from @MojaveMax read.
Green said that, unlike Punxsutawney Phil, Max is allowed to dictate the seasonal change rather than being yanked out of a hut on a predetermined day, the way Phil has been marking Groundhog Day for more than 130 years.
Donald said Phil’s track record is unblemished.
“He’s been right 100% of the time,” she said.
Time magazine did an analysis of Phil’s accuracy and it revealed he was actually correct only about 36% of the time. This year, a warrant was issued for Phil’s arrest by the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in Pennsylvania for deception — claiming that winter has continued longer than the six additional weeks predicted by the groundhog. Phil’s publicity team argued that the warrant was a misguided attempt to blame the messenger rather than Mother Nature.
It should be noted that Mojave Max has never been subject to an arrest warrant.
Phil’s club also steadfastly sticks to the lore centered around the groundhog’s age. Donald said that because of a special elixir administered every few years, the same Phil has been doing prognostications for the past 132 years. Donald will not budge on this point, even though a groundhog’s lifespan typically doesn’t exceed eight years.
Green said desert tortoises live between 50 and 80 years. And Max doesn’t have to drink an elixir, either. Just water.