Disney Murdered The Lemmings
In 1958, Disney won Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards for the nature film White Wilderness, which depicted Arctic wildlife. The film includes a scene showing mindless migrating lemmings throwing themselves over a steep cliff into the Arctic sea, where they swim away from shore until they die.
But it turns out that the lemmings didn’t jump — They were pushed by the filmmakers. And the whole migration was staged. The Alaska Fish and Game Department explained in 2003:
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.
“Disney had to have gotten that idea from somewhere,” said Thomas McDonough, the state wildlife biologist. Disney likely confused dispersal with migration, he added, and embellished a kernel of truth.
Lemming populations fluctuate enormously based on predators, food, climate and other factors. Under ideal conditions, in a single year a population of voles can increase by a factor of ten. When they’ve exhausted the local food supply, they disperse, as do moose, beaver and many other animals.
Lemmings can swim and will cross bodies of water in their quest for greener pastures. Sometimes they drown. Dispersal and accidental death is a far cry from the instinctive, deliberate mass suicide depicted in “White Wilderness.”
The misinformed lemming metaphor is popular in politics. In fact, this 2008 campaign ad for defeated Senate candidate from Oklahoma Andrew Rice actually used the bogus footage from the Disney documentary: