Lemming Lessons and a Case Study

In a leadership training session today, the facilitator showed the following cartoon:

The cartoon depicts lemmings following each other over a cliff in a mass suicide. One lemming in the back says, “I’d like to question the leadership on this move.” Another lemming next to him says, “Shut up! You’re undermining the troops!” Arguably, the questioning lemming is the leader, while the other lemming is management. (Both are necessary for effective project management, however.)

A shot from the popular Lemmings video game.

The idea of lemmings commiting mass suicide shows up elsewhere in popular culture. Lemmings the video game is perhaps the most popular. In the game, players herd their lemmings through a maze-puzzle, trying to save as many as possible, while sacrificing a few to prevent the mass suicide. The few might serve as blocks or bombs, for example, to keep the group flowing or to remove some obstacles.

A shot from the popular Lemmings video game.

Apple created a dystopian lemmings commercial for its Macintosh Office:

Apple critiques the workers who continue to use the same applications without question and suggests their doom for doing so. To say the least, the commercial did not go over well.

This amusing campaign commercial compared lemmings with a death wish to politicians and the status quo:

Unfortunately, the voters went with the lemmings on this one.

But let’s get right to the point: Lemmings do not commit mass suicide. Lemming populations vary widely over time, and earlier wild theories attempted to explain these shifts. One thought the lemmings descended from the sky during storms, and another story suggested they came down with snow. Instead, lemmings migrate to ease the problems created during population booms.

This myth of lemmings committing mass suicide started with a Disney documentary titled White Wilderness (1958), which actually won the Best Documentary Oscar. In White Wilderness, the filmmakers brought lemmings into Alberta, Canada, and staged them to look like a mass of them was jumping off a cliff into the water:

The lemmings’ plummeting toward the water is a dramatic and disturbing sequence, particularly once you know they are being pushed to create the fake story’s drama. The swelling music adds suspense to this climax. The narrator states, “All seem to survive the ordeal” (of being pushed over a cliff!) before they swim out into the sea (and most likely drown).

A Canadian television show called The Fifth Estate broke the news of the sequences being faked in 1982, but the cartoon, video game, commercial, and campaign spot all came well after this finding.

White Wilderness is a great case study in wildlife documentary and truth. It shows how people tend to trust the documentary form, particularly with the voiceover explaining its visuals. The authoritarian voiceover leaves little room for argument or interpretation. That expository mode of representation, along with the impact of the lemming “story,” created a deep cultural frame that has yet to be completely undone.

It also shows the challenges of wildlife filmmaking, particularly with making animals look interesting when much of filming wildlife involves waiting. Lemmings are cute and about the size of other rodents caged as pets, but those qualities provide little to make them a compelling story filled with drama and conflict.

It further shows taking wildlife filmmaking too far. Trying to get that right shot is one thing, but staging an entire sequence that misleads the audience about lemmings’ habits is disingenuous. That staging also resulted in killing animals, which is the greater offense behind this piece’s fictions.