White Wilderness Controversy: Disney Pushed the Lemmings Off a Cliff, Not the Other Way Around, So they didn’t Commit Mass Suicide


Walt Disney Productions produced White Wilderness, a 1958 American-Canadian wildlife documentary. It is well-known for spreading the myth of lemming mass murder.

Winston Hibler provided the narration for James Algar’s film, which he also directed. Over the period of three years, it was shot on location in Canada. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and won the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear for Best Documentary.

Popular culture Has a Strong Influence On Our Lives

The Dead Kennedys song “Potshot Heard Round the World” was inspired by White Wilderness. Lemmings leaping over a cliff in White Wilderness were utilized as a political metaphor in the 2008 US Senate campaign of Andrew Monroe Rice.


An animated clip in the 2014 film Penguins of Madagascar mocks the White Wilderness debate.

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Disney Pushed the Lemmings off a Cliff, Not the Other Way Around, So they didn’t Commit Mass Suicide.

During their annual migration, lemmings get a bad rap as fearsome rodents who jump off cliffs in terror. It turns out, however, that the “documentary” that first disseminated this falsehood was more snuff fiction than science. Normally, you wouldn’t expect such a thing from a Disney film.


1958 was the year. A James Alga nature documentary about subarctic life titled White Wilderness was the subject of the conversation. There was, however, a distinct lack of documentation. First, the famous scenario that first pushed the idea that lemmings regularly migrate and commit mass suicide was created.

So, where did this movie come from? It was filmed in Alberta, Canada. Because lemmings aren’t native to the area, the production team brought in a few dozen of the rodents to use in the film. First of all, the type of lemming they lined up does not migrate. There are several species of lemmings that do migrate in response to the cyclical population expansion of their species. But you’ll never get to observe a horde of lemmings migrate as you do in the film (no matter how adorable that would be).

Since they couldn’t truly “migrate,” the crew used a snow-covered turntable to make it look like they were. These migratory creatures were herded to the bank of a local river and unceremoniously thrown in, where they perished after being shot by the team enough times. As a result, the notion of lemmings taking their own lives was born.

Cruel? Definitely. However, this was Hollywood in the 1950s, and animal brutality was all too commonplace.


It was no huge issue for the studios to murder a few dozen rats for the enjoyment of theatergoers since they had already slaughtered nearly a hundred horses for a single scene in Ben Hur and stabbed a lion to death in Tarzan.

How Disney Convinced the World That Lemmings Commit Mass Suicide?

Disney+ is clearly designed to convey a specific image based on the selection of films it offers. There is a wide variety to choose from when it comes to family-friendly films from Disney’s archives, including classics like The Sound of Music and Home Alone. Because Disney controls the rights to so much content, it’s easy to see what’s missing from Disney+ as well as what’s there. The absence of Walt Disney’s racist adaptation of the Uncle Remus story, Song of the South, from 1946 was not surprising, but it was nevertheless obvious. However, if Disney’s Birth of a Nation brought us “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” then-White Wilderness, the Oscar-winning environmental documentary from 1958, is its Nanook of the North. Not the most provocative film in their canon, but it is an ethically contentious landmark nonetheless. When Disney+ first launched, it had White Wilderness and a few more movies that featured arctic life, but they were all taken down at the beginning of the year. An old nature documentary may not have been popular, but it fits with Disney’s self-censoring tendencies.

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I'm a researcher and behavioural therapist with a PhD in Social Media. I also love to travel and drink coffee. Follow my adventures around the world, or just know that I really need to be back at the library.