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~ Do Lemmings Really Commit Suicide? ~


The notion that lemmings had suicidal tendencies was widely publicized in the Walt Disney documentary "White Wilderness". The following is an interesting essay, by David McMillan, refuting the claims made in the film.




Early European settlers of Australia destroyed vast tracts of millennia-old rainforest in order to plant their English roses. They rationalised these actions, those who felt any compunctions at all, by referring to and decrying the native bush as ‘scrub’. What a difference language makes to the world we inhabit! So much easier to think you’re clearing some nuisance scrub in the spirit of pioneering than to realise you’re cutting a living chain uniquely evolved from the magisterial forests of aeons ago. That would constitute a monumental tragedy! But clearing a bit of scrub – good work! Have a beer!


Another ecological lie which is embedded in our language relates to the lemming. The very word ‘lemming’ has come to refer to an unthinking conformity which leads inexorably to self-destruction. This meaning is even ensconced in the Oxford English Dictionary, which sets forth the common usage of ‘lemming-like’ as ‘headlong, suicidal, unthinking.’


The amazing fact is that the only evidence which supports this commonly held misconception was fabricated by the makers of an Academy Award-winning Walt Disney nature documentary. An excerpt from this film, along with some extraordinarily stupid interview subjects, can be viewed here:


There are four different types of lemming; they are furry little rodents (can be about 10 cm long) and are found in the cooler northern parts of Eurasia and North America. As with other rodents, populations of lemmings go through mysterious boom and bust cycles. The fluctuations in lemming populations are more regular than for other rodents: every three or four years, lemming populations peak dramatically and then drop back to almost zero. No-one knows why. There are quite a few educated guesses involving food availability, predators, migration, diseases, climate and other environmental variables, and yet it bears repeating, because it is the fear of this sentiment which causes scientists to cook up the odd hypothesis or two: No-one knows why.


One such odd hypothesis, possibly originating in the 1930s at the Bureau of Animal Population, Oxford University, in merry old England, was that natural population control in the form of a sudden population crash was effected by mass-suicide.


Walt Disney’s White Wilderness (1958) was filmed in Alberta, Canada, by nine different cinematographers. The photographer in charge of the lemming sequence was James R. Simon. It seems the film-makers believed the group suicide theory; perhaps from this we can infer it was the accepted scientific ‘truth’ at the time. Since lemmings are not even native to Alberta, Canada, the film-makers purchased a number of pet lemmings from Inuit children, transported them to Alberta and then staged a scene where the lemmings appear to throw themselves into the sea. In fact, and this is now acknowledged by the Walt Disney company, it was the Disney film crew who threw these helpless creatures off a cliff into a river, and used camera angles and editing to create a misleading impression which resonates to this day.


The film won the 1959 Oscar for Best Documentary, beginning its long life of disinformation. The scientific theory it was based on quietly went out of fashion, and no doubt because the Pied Piper-ish ‘if everyone else jumped off a cliff would you?’ metaphor proved so apt for the human species, ‘lemming-like’ behaviour passed into the language and became a seemingly immovable prop within popular culture. All of this is very worrying indeed. Some scientists lay down the law, Walt Disney creates a memorable if faked movie (for which animals were murdered and at the same time slanderously implicated in their own deaths) and that is all that is needed for a false concept to become rooted in our collective culture, because it seems easier to unthinkingly accept an inherited falsehood than to really get to know other animals on their own terms.


-David McMillan

Click here to read more on the lemming suicide controversy at Snopes



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