ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Considering Disney's world famous mascot is a mouse, you'd thing they'd be pretty positively disposed towards all of Mickey's rodent brethren. Unfortunately, the true story of one of Disney's best known, and controversial, documentaries proves that's not quite the case.

White Wilderness was a 1958 Disney "True-Life" documentary which purported to show the lives of animals living in the frozen tundra of North America. The film, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, features one particularly famous scene which went on to promote one of natural world's biggest inaccuracies: that lemmings are suicidal.

I'm sure you've heard the 'fact'; it states that lemmings often gather in huge numbers and then launch themselves off cliffs and into the sea in some kind of apparent mass 'suicide.' This erroneous fact was later spread and supported by footage from White Wilderness which purported to show lemmings doing just that: jumping off a cliff.

However, if lemmings do not actually do this, how did Disney get the footage? Well, that leads us to an unpleasant conclusion: they forced the lemmings off the cliffs and to their deaths. You can watch the segment below:

How They Faked It

In reality, hardly anything you saw in that segment was real. Instead it was the combination of clever editing, framing and camera tricks.

In reality, according to a 1983 investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer Brian Vallee, the scene was filmed in an area of Alberta, Canada which is not even the natural habitat for lemmings. This meant around a dozen lemmings were imported from another province, Manitoba. However, things get even sadder when you learn most of the lemmings were purchased from Inuit children who had captured them as pets.

The lemmings were then transported to Alberta and then placed on a turn-table device to make their number seem more numerous. Furthermore, Alberta is really landlocked and does not have an outlet to the sea. Actually, the lemmings were tossed/forced into the Bow River, and not the Arctic Ocean like the voice-over explains.

Do Lemmings Commit Suicide?

The lemming suicide rumor has at least some kind of basis of truth, but not in the way presented in White Wilderness. Large numbers of lemmings have been known to die in small periods of time -- often in the sea or other bodies of water -- although this has nothing to do with suicidal 'compulsion' or 'unreasoning hysteria' as explained in White Wilderness.

The lemming population is highly sensitive to various factors such as predators, weather and the availability of food, etc. In a good year, the lemming population can explode to 10 times its original number, necessitating something known by naturalists as 'dispersal.' Like many other animals, lemmings must disperse if their numbers become too great in a small area. It is during this mass dispersal that some lemmings might die by falling off cliffs or drowning. However, zoologist Gordon Jarrell, an expert in small mammals with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is adamant there is no kind of 'suicidal' of 'hysterical' drive. He explained:

What people see is essentially mass dispersal. Sometimes it's pretty directional. The classic example is in the Scandinavian mountains, where (lemmings) have been dramatically observed. They will come to a body of water and be temporarily stopped, and eventually they'll build up along the shore so dense and they will swim across. If they get wet to the skin, they're essentially dead.

Regarding the lemming suicide myth, he added:

It's a frequent question. 'Do they really kill themselves?' No. The answer is unequivocal, no they don't.

The lemming segments in White Wilderness were filmed by James R. Simon, one of nine photographers who added material to the documentary. Therefore it's unclear if Walt Disney knew how these particular scenes were created or whether he approved of the method, although it's reasonable to assume he knew some scenes in White Wilderness were being staged.

At the time, staging scenes was fairly typical of nature documentaries as capturing animal behavior in the wild -- especially in harsh climates -- is extremely challenging, time consuming and, perhaps most importantly, expensive. In this sense, Disney most likely knew White Wilderness did not contain 100 percent natural scenes.

Indeed, even documentaries today occasionally stage scenes, but often only if filming it naturally is dangerous to the crew or animals in question. In these instances, such as the Frozen Planet scene showing polar bear birth, captive animals in controlled environments are used. The difference with White Wilderness, however, is that they didn't only fabricate the scene, they also fabricated the explanation. As explains:

Nonetheless, in this case what was depicted on screen was a complete fabrication, not a recreation of real animal behavior that filmmakers were unable to capture on film.

Source: Snopes, Alaska Department of Fish of Game


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