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Suicidal lemmings

Question: who would push a few dozen small rodents over a cliff to drown in the river below? Answer: a film crew from the Walt Disney corporation, the creator of oh-so many lovable animated animals. Why did they commit this unnatural act? Because they were making a nature documentary, of course.

White Wilderness, released in 1958, was about animals in the Arctic. A star appearance was made by the lemming, with its taste for chilly habitats and strange habit of committing mass suicide. Sure enough, audiences saw the creatures plunging to their deaths - close up and in focus. The final shot shows a sea heaving with dying lemmings. "Gradually, strength wanes... determination ebbs away... and the Arctic Sea is dotted with tiny bobbing bodies," says an emotional commentator. People believed their own eyes and a myth was born. The trouble with Disney's True Life Adventure film was that it was a lie. Lemmings don't actually commit suicide. Every few years overcrowding and a shortage of their favourite food, moss, forces them to migrate in search of greener pastures. En route many do die, but accidentally.

But these facts were either ignored or not known to the makers of White Wilderness. They were preoccupied with practical problems. Lemmings live in northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia. They do not live in land-locked Alberta, where the film was made. In order to get their hands on some furry kamikaze, the film-makers paid Inuit children in Manitoba to catch them. The 50 or so they acquired were placed on a snow-covered turntable and filmed from various angles in order to fake the mass migrations that preceded the supposed suicides. Then, according to a 1983 investigation by a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer, the lemmings were taken and pushed off the cliff.

Whether or not Disney head office was aware of the fabrication is not known. But next time the credits roll and you read "No animals were hurt in the making of this film", spare a thought for the poor lemmings.

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