How Disney Faked a Suicide and Lied About It

How Disney Faked a Suicide and Carried On a Lie
Credit: DisneyDining/ Canva

1958 was a simpler time. America’s first satellite was launched from Cape Canaveral, the Yankees won the World Series, and Disney quietly wrangled and murdered Lemmings for television? Yes, you read that correctly. Lemmings, small rodents who called the Artic tundra their home, were the victims of a staged, not-so-animal-friendly mass suicide (so it would seem) on the set of Disney’s¬†White Wilderness. Not only did Disney “persuade” these adorable little creatures to certain doom, but they also perpetuated a myth about the species scientists are still fighting to disprove today.

White Wilderness¬†was an installment of Disney’s¬†True-Life Adventures¬†series. This series of nature-based features ranged from 1948-1950 in filming, most of which were headed up by James Alger. Alger was also responsible for the¬†Sorcerer’s Apprentice¬†section of¬†Fantasia. The award-winning academy series was meant to give viewers an authentic and close-up look at nature and those who call her endless boundaries home. As with many original Disney programs, the theme of¬†True-Life Adventures¬†was education. However, it would seem that in their efforts to teach us about animals worldwide, authenticity wasn’t high on Disney’s list of priorities.

How Disney Faked a Suicide and Carried On a Lie

Credit: Disney

Disney is well known for their work with animals, and mostly its very ethical. Many substantiated claims; however, have been made claiming Disney used false sets and less-than-ethical practices to get the shots they needed to film the 70 year old series. One particular shot was so unsettling; early reviews called the series excessive in “goriness.” In the 1958 White Wildnerness¬†segment of the series, a group of lovable Lemmings can be seen jumping to their death from a cliff. However, how exactly did Disney capture one of nature’s biggest blunders?

There’s an old myth that suggests Lemmings, when migrating, will commit mass suicide. Through their nature-driven response to find food, it isn’t uncommon for groups to wander off cliffs or into waterways. The problem is that myth is widely misconceived, a big part of that due to Disney’s portrayal of Lemmings in their Academy Award-winning show. If Disney shows it on film, it must be true, right? Well, no.¬†

Disneynature Polar Bear

Credit: Disney

The truth is that Disney paid a group of Inuit children to wrangle up Lemmings for them and maliciously built a trap that ensured they’d walk right to their supposed deaths. Or so it seemed that way. Disney didn’t even bother filming the Lemmings they’d collected in their natural habitat. At the bottom of the cliff we see them jumping from, viewers are assured that lovable creatures are plunging into the Arctic Ocean. Accompanied by the following narration, in combination with a few camera tricks, viewers actually believed they were watching Lemmings kill themselves for no reason.¬†

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.

The scene was filmed in Alberta, Canada, in a landlocked space that was nowhere near the ocean. Viewers see a group of Lemmings placed into a turnstile-like device hidden in the landscape. This device was intended to mimic a heard response from the critters as they were pushed toward the water’s edge. The end result was a group of Lemmings splashing into a nearby river on what viewers thought was their own accord. It was suggested that the Lemmings had mistaken the sea for a lake and were under the impression they could make it to the other side! Not only was the scene designed and not natural behavior, but it was also filmed under the influence of a baseless myth that Disney went on to perpetuate with the stunt.

It is unclear if the Lemmings collected and used for the scene were harmed; we hope not, but if they’re willing to fake mass suicide, who knows? It is clear that Disney orchestrated senseless death on screen for viewers; in doing so, they were essential in continuing the disinformation that Lemmings committed mass suicide.¬†

“What people see is essentially mass dispersal,” said zoologist Gordon Jarrell, an expert in small mammals with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Sometimes it’s pretty directional. The classic example is in the Scandinavian mountains, where (lemmings) have been dramatically observed. They will come to a body of water and be temporarily stopped, and eventually they’ll build up along the shore so dense and they will swim across. If they get wet to the skin, they’re essentially dead. It’s a frequent question,” he said “‘Do they really kill themselves?’ No. The answer is unequivocal, no they don’t.”

How Disney Faked a Suicide and Lie About It?

Credit: Canva

It’s quite an interesting story, especially considering the Motion Picture Associations’ efforts to moderate the treatment of animals during filming in 1939. Even more interesting is that this isn’t the last time Disney has gotten itself in hot water over animal abuse.¬†“According to state and federal charges filed against Disney in September 1989, Cast Members at Discovery Island killed vultures, kept dozens of other vultures in a tiny shed without adequate food and water, used guns to shoot at falcons and hawks, and intentionally destroyed eggs in the nests of ibises and egrets.”¬†

animal kingdom theme park walt disney world hyenas hot humid

Credit: Disney

As of today,¬†White Wildnerness¬†cannot be found on Disney+. But you can¬†purchase the episode¬†and the entire series from Disney directly. The manufactured suicide of Lemmings is a story that Disney would probably like to keep out of public view. Still, it is one of extreme interest that lends itself to the changing of time and how we film informational series. It also tells a bigger story, illustrating that even Disney isn’t immune to clickbait.¬†

About Michael Arnold

Michael is a father, husband, and an Army Veteran. Michael spends his weekends at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando checking out new merchandise and food. Michael is a graduate of the University of Alabama and has an education background in Public Health. You can find Michael riding Pirates of the Caribbean over and over again or binge watching new Marvel and Star Wars content. Han shot first. Thor is the strongest Avenger. Roll Tide and Wash Your Hands!