The advice is lousy on several counts, including the fact that its assumption about lemming behavior is false. The blame lies with Disney, which has been spreading disinformation about rodents ever since it put gloves, shoes, and shorts on Mickey Mouse and claimed that he was bipedal.
At least the changes to Mickey enhanced the reputation of rodents and made a member of their order positively lovable. The lemmings, sadly, have become one of nature’s freak shows.
The trouble started with a segment about lemmings in “White Wilderness,” a 1950s wildlife program. Today, gazillions of people believe that lemmings have turned the Arctic into a giant Jonestown of rodent death.
“I know it’s been controversial,” says Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney and a member of the Walt Disney Company’s board of directors, in an interview with NRO.
Disney — the company and the man — are currently promoting a new series of DVDs, True-Life Adventures. There are four volumes, and the first of these includes “White Wilderness.”
Years ago, in elementary school, a teacher played it for my class. Its images of lemmings plunging to their doom in bitter-cold water are etched in my memory. The 12-minute segment is a blend of animal documentary, horror movie, and black comedy. Watching it is one of the more vivid memories from my childhood. (See a grainy version of it here.)
“It’s a strange fact that the largest legends seem to collect around the smallest creations,” says the narrator of “Winter Wilderness,” Winston Hibler. “It’s said of this tiny animal [the lemming] that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves.”
After some initial scenes of lemmings as they romp in the snow, dig their burrows, and feed their young, we learn that when their numbers reach a critical mass, they begin to migrate: “Once in motion, none stops to ask why. Instead, 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.” They are “victims of an obsession.”
The film shows dozens of them scampering across the tundra. They hustle around the legs of ptarmigans and become meals for other birds of prey. But they keep on going, like the Energizer Bunny.
Then comes the fateful climax: “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.” As they plunge from the cliff and splash into the sea, they become a flopping waterfall of kamikaze rodents. The film’s once playful soundtrack suddenly sounds like the music from the shower scene in Psycho.
The lemmings swim, but not for long. “Soon the Arctic sea is dotted with tiny bodies.” The music now turns melancholy. “And so is acted out the legend of mass suicide.”
Last month, I asked readers of NRO if they remembered seeing “Winter Wilderness” as kids. Scores replied. Here are excerpts from three e-mails:
It was traumatizing though, watching them all dive to their death.
It was really creepy and somewhat disturbing, in a goofy kind of way. This herd of furry little rat like things running at full speed across the plain and off the cliff.
I totally remember watching a film in elementary school about lemmings. I don’t remember a whole lot, but, like you, the image of all those lemmings running of the cliff is seared into my memory. I always thought it was bizarre that animals would just commit suicide like that. They even did it on a beautiful summer’s day! To me, it seems to be against the “laws of nature.” It is just plain wrong. I found the image of lemmings committing mass suicide was more disturbing than a lion eating a zebra. But also fascinating.
One reader said the film was paired with a lesson about human overpopulation!
The idea that lemmings commit mass suicide has seeped into the culture: It became the subject of a videogame, greeting cards, and an advertisement for Apple computers. The behavior of lemmings has become a popular metaphor for herd mentality.
But it’s also wrong. Several websites do a good job of debunking the myth. Take your pick among snopes.com, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the San Francisco Chronicle, etc. Although lemmings migrate due to population pressures and are known to fall from heights and drown in water, they don’t fling themselves off ledges in stampeding hordes, as “Winter Wilderness” leads its viewers to believe. Disney’s crew seems to have faked much of the lemming segment: It was filmed in landlocked Alberta, which is not a native habitat for lemmings and does not touch the ocean, and the lemmings themselves were apparently driven off the ledges and into the water.
Roy Disney got his start in film by working on True-Life Adventures: He helped edit an episode called “The Living Desert” and then spent a full year working on “The Vanishing Prairie.”
“It was the best film school in the world,” he says. “These documentaries are designed to be entertaining. We’re in show business.”
I asked Disney about the lemmings: “Winter Wilderness,” he says, was one of the few True-Life Adventures program with which he was not somehow involved. “I don’t know very much about it,” he says. “I believe it fairly represents what is known to happen, but I’m kind of thankful I never worked on that one because I don’t have to express an opinion.”
“Winter Wonderland” was made so long ago that its makers can’t be interviewed anymore. “Finding anybody who worked on these films is pretty hard,” says Disney.
Interestingly, the episodes of True-Life Adventures normally begin with a statement about their authenticity. “Water Birds,” for instance, displays these words:
This is one of a series of True-Life Adventures presenting strange facts about the world we live in. In the making of these films, nature is the dramatist. There are no fictitious situations or characters.
And “Beaver Valley” begins with this:
These films are photographed in their natural settings and are completely authentic, unstaged, and unrehearsed.
“Winter Wonderland,” however, includes no such claim.
On the whole, the True-Life Adventures are entertaining. They are some of the first wildlife documentaries ever filmed. “These were unique at the time,” says Disney. “There was nothing else out there like them.” He especially likes an episode called “Water Birds.” “It has a sequence of amazing flight shots with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody playing the background — it’s just a sensational piece of work.”
But the poor lemmings are stuck with their Psycho soundtrack and deathwish reputation. The smear campaign must stop. The time has come for us to let lemmings be lemmings.
– John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.