In 1958 Walt Disney produced “White Wilderness,” part of the studio’s “True Life Adventure” series. “White Wilderness” featured a segment on lemmings, detailing their strange compulsion to commit mass suicide.
According to a 1983 investigation by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer Brian Vallee, the lemming scenes were faked. The lemmings supposedly committing mass suicide by leaping into the ocean were actually thrown off a cliff by the Disney filmmakers. The epic “lemming migration” was staged using careful editing, tight camera angles and a few dozen lemmings running on snow covered lazy-Susan style turntable.
“White Wilderness” was filmed in Alberta, Canada, a landlocked province, and not on location in lemmings’ natural habitat. There are about 20 lemming species found in the circumpolar north – but evidently not in that area of Alberta. So the Disney people bought lemmings from Inuit children a couple provinces away in Manitoba and staged the whole sequence. Riley Woodford, “Lemming Suicide Myth: Disney Film Faked Bogus Behavior[article title]” at Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Well, first off, lemmings are rodents, not people. They don’t know anything about death in the abstract so they can’t possibly be intending suicide—which is an abstract concept. You have to have an abstract idea of death to think about suicide.
A Canadian wildlife biologist explained the lemmings’ march succinctly decades ago for the few who care: Lemmings, stressed by food shortages, set out on am accidentally mass trek. The horde tries to cross bodies of water. The lemmings don’t know how wide the bodies of water are. Most drown. End of story.
The same thing will happen to future lemmings some years down the road. Nothing is known and nothing is learned. But it is sure good news for fish…
We’re told Disney was a Darwin fan, which might predispose him to look for non-common sense explanations of animal behavior, where the animals are assumed to be driven by some occult force or other and not by straightforward concerns. Some of us have heard this story used to drive home lessons about human “overpopulation.” As if.