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 lemming suicide: 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.
Nonetheless, the narration strongly suggests that the behavior shown in the film is a form of unreasoning, compulsive march to death in which lemmings typically engage:
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. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They've become victims of an obsession — a one-track thought: 'Move on! Move on!' This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space ... and so is acted out the legend of mass suicide.
None of what was shown in the film was realistic lemming behavior, however. Disney's White 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 different photographers spent three years shooting and assembling footage for the various segments that comprise White Wilderness, and it is not known whether Walt Disney approved or was aware of the activities of James R. Simon, the principal photographer for the lemmings sequence. 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 document 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.
As the Alaska Department of Fish and Game noted in an article about this myth:
"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," but [the White Wilderness narrator] explains that life is tough in the lemmings' "weird world of frozen chaos." The voice-over implies that lemmings take the plunge every seven to ten years to alleviate overpopulation.
"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."
Jarrell said when people learn that he works with lemmings, the mass suicide issue often comes up.
"It's a frequent question," he said "'Do they really kill themselves?' No. The answer is unequivocal, no they don't."