Less than a year ago, a Lancaster County man took a baby groundhog he found in his driveway to a local wildlife refuge, where she was found to have a debilitating dental condition, leaving her incapable of surviving in the wild.

But things have turned around for the 10-month-old, 12-pound 'hog named Poppy. She’s now perhaps the second most famous groundhog in America.

On Sunday, millions of Super Bowl viewers saw Poppy, cared for by volunteers at the Raven Ridge Wildlife Center in Lancaster County, featured alongside Bill Murray in a Jeep commercial revisiting the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, of course. Poppy was filmed sitting shotgun, riding in a bicycle basket, and accompanying Murray to dinner.

And Poppy has inspired more than good ad reviews: In an odd coincidence, there’s also now Poppy the Groundhog merchandise — unrelated to the Super Bowl stardom — and donations coming in to Raven Ridge, in Washington Boro, to support the volunteer organization and the mammals, birds, and reptiles in its care.

It’s a true “rags to riches” story, Poppy’s handler, Betsy Shank, said.

Shank said Poppy was brought to the refuge when she was about 4 weeks old — so young she still had her eyes closed. Over several months of care, she struggled to get used to drinking and eating. Veterinarians found she has a dental condition called groundhog malocclusion, meaning her front teeth were misaligned and continued to grow without wearing down.

Raven Ridge had three options for Poppy: euthanize her, put her under anesthesia and have her teeth cut down on a weekly basis, or remove her front teeth and leave her with just her 18 molars. Last fall, they opted for the last.

Then in December, Shank got her first glimpse of Poppy’s potential for fame. A few weeks after Shank’s husband went into Ville & Rue by Domaci, a Lancaster boutique, and recommended it sell pillows with groundhogs on them — something his wife would like for the holidays, no doubt — Poppy was in Bucks County being photographed by Eric & Christopher LLC, textile designers based in Perkasie.

They started manufacturing tote bags and pillows for a rollout on Groundhog Day, which falls on Feb. 2, coincidentally this year the same day as the Super Bowl.

Textile designers from Bucks County worked to create items with Poppy's likeness on them. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Raven Ridge Wildlife Center in Lancaster, Poppy's home.
Courtesy of Eric & Christopher, LLC
Textile designers from Bucks County worked to create items with Poppy's likeness on them. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Raven Ridge Wildlife Center in Lancaster, Poppy's home.

While the merchandise was in production in mid-January, Shank got a call from an animal agent based in New York who was in need of a groundhog. Fast. Murray had, at the eleventh hour, agreed with Fiat Chrysler to do a Jeep commercial for the Super Bowl.

Murray notoriously doesn’t do commercials, doesn’t employ reps, and gives people a 1-800 number to leave a message if they want to get in touch with him. Fiat Chrysler chief marketing officer Olivier Francois told CNBC the company tried the phone number and penned a letter to Murray in October, but had given up on running a Super Bowl ad — until hearing back from him just two weeks before the big game.

They just needed to procure a groundhog. Shank knew of the perfect one.

With more than a week to go until the Super Bowl, Shank said she and Poppy drove to Woodstock, Ill. (where the original Groundhog Day was shot), for the commercial filming. While there, they were accompanied by the animal agent and a third-party official to certify humane animal treatment during filming.

Shank said Murray was a natural with the rodent, which was wearing a harness and tethered through most of the shoot, which took place over three days.

Poppy the Groundhog, a local rescue groundhog from Lancaster, made her first-ever television debut during the Super Bowl in a Jeep ad featuring Bill Murray.
Courtesy of Eric & Christopher, LLC
Poppy the Groundhog, a local rescue groundhog from Lancaster, made her first-ever television debut during the Super Bowl in a Jeep ad featuring Bill Murray.

Then, on Super Bowl Sunday, Jeep released its Groundhog Day ad on its social media channels at 6 a.m., the time Murray awoke each day in the 1993 comedy classic.

The same day as the commercial’s rollout, Poppy merchandise, created by a couple of Pennsylvania small businesses, was unveiled, and a portion of the proceeds will go to Raven Ridge, which is in the process of undertaking construction to get, among other renovations, a hot water system, a new roof, and internet access.

“I truly believe,” Shank said, “this animal was put on this planet for this purpose.”