In this uncertain world, there are at least three things on which all of us can be certain: Disney loves animals, nature documentaries are reliable, and lemmings commit mass suicide by throwing themselves off cliffs.
If that summarizes your philosophy of life, prepare to have your world shaken. One of the most enduring beliefs about animals was perpetuated by a Disney nature documentary that is not a fan favorite of animal lovers.
In 1958, Walt Disney Studios released White Wilderness. Directed by James Algar and narrated by Winston Hibler, it was filmed over three years. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the Golden Bear for Best Documentary at the 1959 Berlin Film Festival.
White Wilderness contained an educational segment about lemmings. These furry little rodents are native to northern portions of Sweden, Canada, Finland, and Norway. According to legend, when lemming populations grow too large, they cull the herd through mass suicide by throwing themselves off cliffs into the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean.
Disney chose to use White Wilderness to focus on the mass suicide legend. After briefly introducing viewers to the rodent, narrator Hibler ominously observes, “A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny.” As he spoke, the camera captured scenes of lemmings doing exactly that. Breathlessly, viewers watched a massive herd of the rodents running toward the edge of the cliff. Surely they could see the fate that awaited them and would turn back!
“They’ve become victims of an obsession — a one-track thought: Move on! Move on!” says the narrator. “Ahead lies the Arctic shore, and beyond the sea. And still, the little animals surge forward. … They reach the final precipice. This is the last chance to turn back. Yet over they go, casting themselves bodily into space.” The film’s playful soundtrack abruptly changes to sounds reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho.
Viewers watched in abject horror as hoards of lemmings throw themselves to certain doom to the rocks and icy waters below. Surely such carnage would not be equaled until the great Thanksgiving Day turkey drop on WKRP in Cincinnati.
As the segment approaches its end, we see the cold, soggy pack of lemmings swimming toward the horizon. The narrator solemnly tells us that the swim will not last long. “Soon the Arctic sea is dotted with tiny bodies.”
Thus ends the most depressing and traumatizing Disney scene since Bambi’s mother was slaughtered before her son’s eyes.
Setting aside for a moment the wisdom of such a creepy narrative for a film that was targeted at children, let’s take a look at places where White Wilderness got a little confused with the facts. For one thing, it failed to distinguish dispersion from mass suicide. Lemming population numbers fluctuate wildly. They can, in a very short time, multiply their numbers tenfold. When the population reaches the point where the resources of the habitat cannot sustain everyone, they perform the migratory practice of dispersion. Simply put, they spread out and seek out more sustainable environments. When they do this, accidents are inevitable. At some point in history, someone observed a lemming or two lose its footing and fall off a cliff, and that’s probably how the legend was born. There has never been any evidence, however, that the little critters have ever engaged in the type of mass suicide suggested by the documentary.
Another problem with White Wilderness was that it was filmed in Alberta, Canada. This province, blessedly rat-free, as we have detailed in this article, also happens to be lemmings-free. Producers paid children in Manitoba a bounty of 25 cents per lemming to round up a couple of dozen critters. The lemmings were shipped south to be featured in the film. Unfortunately, the lemmings that we see in White Wilderness happen to be of a type that does not practice the dispersion migration, to begin with.
Then there is the issue with the location. Alberta is landlocked and without access to the waters of the Arctic. The supposedly endless body of frigid water in which we see the doomed lemmings was, in reality, the Bow River.
So how did they get the dramatic footage of masses of lemmings hurling themselves to self-inflicted destruction? It was accomplished through a little movie magic. Tight camera shots and creative camera angles made the few available lemmings appear to be part of a much larger herd. To urge the bewildered animals toward certain destruction, the crew members built spinning turntables covered in snow to jostle the lemmings and push them off the edge of the cliff. For a little extra drama, some crew members picked up lemmings and threw them over the cliff’s edge, making appear that the rodents were leaping eagerly into the jaws of death.
In short, this was not Disney’s finest moment. White Wilderness remains a source of trauma for children who remember watching it when it was released. Since it had such a powerful impact on viewers, the whole myth of lemming suicide has been firmly cemented in popular culture. In reality, White Wilderness does not document lemming suicide; it is solid evidence of animal cruelty.
Commonplace Fun Facts reached out to Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy for comments. No response has been received at the time of this writing. Pluto did, however, give us a sloppy kiss on the cheek for championing the cause of his martyred comrades.
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