Lemmings on turntables

Speaking of faking up the wildlife footage – you know that trope about lemmings throwing themselves off cliffs? To quote Elaine in Seinfeld: fake fake fake fake.

Snopes has the story:

Some of the most memorable scenes in White Wilderness, Disney’s 1958 Academy Award-winning “True-Life Adventure” nature documentary about wildlife in the snowy northern portions of the North American continent, were ones featuring the death of lemmings who drowned after jumping off cliffs and into the sea. But the scenes shown in the documentary were staged by filmmakers in order to replicate supposed real-life behavior of lemmings that could not be captured on film, and thus did Disney perpetuate for generations to come the legend of periodic, inexplicable mass suicides by lemmings who die by hurling themselves off of cliffs.

The narration in the film accompanying the lemmings scenes begins as follows:

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

What the audience then sees is what appears to be a horde of lemmings entering the Arctic sea by jumping off cliffs and scampering across rock-covered beaches to enter the water from the shore, whereupon they swim out to sea and (we’re told by the narrator) eventually drown — not quite because they’re simply committing suicide, the film states, but because they’ve supposedly mistaken the vast expanse of the Arctic sea for a lake and assumed there’s a reachable shore just across the water.

But it was faked up.

None of what was shown in the film was realistic lemming behavior, however. Disney’sWhite Wilderness was filmed the Canadian province of Alberta, which is not a native habitat for lemmings and is landlocked with no outlet to the sea. The filmmakers had to import lemmings to Alberta for use in the documentary (reportedly by purchasing them from Inuit children who had caught them in other provinces); through the use of carefully controlled camera angles and tight editing, the filmmakers made no more than a few dozen lemmings look like a much larger number, placing them on turntables to create a frenzied migration effect and then herding them off a cliff and into the water (which was actually the Bow River, not an Arctic sea).

Nine photographers spent three years stitching it all together.

Certainly nature documentaries are notoriously difficult to film as wild animals are not terribly cooperative, and many nature shows and films of this era (including Disney’s “True-Life Adventure” movies and the Wild Kingdom television series) staged events to capture exciting footage for their audiences. Nonetheless, in this case what was depicted on screen was a complete fabrication, not a recreation of real animal behavior that filmmakers were unable to capture on film.

Lemmings do not periodically hurl themselves off cliffs and into the sea. Cyclical explosions in population do occasionally induce lemmings to attempt to migrate to areas of lesser population density, and when such migrations occur, some lemmings do die by falling over cliffs or drowning in lakes or rivers. These deaths are neither acts of “suicide” nor the result of compulsive unreasoning behavior, however; they’re accidental deaths resulting from lemmings’ venturing into unfamiliar territories and being crowded and pushed over dangerous ledges or venturing into the water in a quest to reach new territory.

You know all those desperate refugees who drown in the Mediterranean trying to escape from Syria or Libya? Yeah.

H/t Dale Husband

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