Disney has never been a company that maintains absolute historical accuracy. Their deviations from brothers Grimm versions of classic children’s stories are well documented. So too are the liberties they take with historical events such as with Pocahontas’ tale in colonial Virginia. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is contained in the 1958 “documentary” title White Wilderness. In this, Disney filmed a segment on these packs of lemmings who ran off of a cliff into the sea where they would perish. Despite the narrator explaining that these lemmings were doing this compulsively for natural reasons unknown to man, this was simply not true. The mass suicide of lemmings in Alaska was staged.
For one, the footage used for the segment about the lemming mass suicide was filmed in an area where lemmings do not actually live naturally. The filming was done in a Cliffside region of Alberta, Canada. Although some species of lemming are native to Alberta, this is not one such area. This makes one wonder why they were able to film the apparent natural phenomenon in the first place. Upon further investigation, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer Brian Vallee found that Disney had purchased lemmings from Inuit children in the area in order to film this segment. It is unclear if the Disney film crew deliberately misled viewers or not. What is clear, however, is that the event in no way reflects normal lemming behavior.
One theory for the possible misinterpretation of lemming behavior is that their massive population growths can cause equally large population dispersal events. This, combined with the fact that they drown easily, could lead to the misinterpretation of a dispersal event into something more. According to Gordon Jarrell, a zoologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the rodents may line the banks of small rivers or other bodies of water during times of massive dispersal events. This is due to overpopulation. The lemmings then may attempt to swim across the banks, but this will most likely lead to death. The animals are unable to swim and their bodies and fur are not able to handle the water well. Although and event similar to this may have been responsible to for the interpretation that lemmings commit mass suicide, the claim is entirely myth. The lemming mass suicide in the 19050’s Disney documentary was false.