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Commentary: Wild life is called wild for a reason

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2009 - As if it were necessary to further document my suspicion that Walt Disney was the anti-Christ, I now discover that the famous lemming mass suicide scene in his 1958 nature documentary, White Wilderness, was staged. This news was disturbing on a couple of levels.

I first glimpsed the dark side of Disney when I learned that St. Louis was once considered as a site for one of his theme parks. August Busch II -- who ran the brewery back when AB stood for "Anheuser-Busch" rather than "Almost Belgian" -- agreed to lend his considerable civic influence in support of the effort, provided that he be allowed to operate a beer garden in it. Disney reportedly objected on the grounds that beer sales would imperil the family atmosphere of the place.

Think about that: A working stiff sacrifices his day off so that his ankle-biters can lose themselves in delusional wonder. After a long day of flying tea cups and dancing rodents, he's hot, tired and out a half week's pay. His feet hurt and his back aches as "It's a Small World, After All" rings maddeningly in his ear.

Only Satan himself could muster the requisite cruelty to deny this poor sap the meager solace of a cold beer. But Walt did just that, and the deal fell through, an early victim of family values fascism.

An even more sinister aspect of Disney Corp. is its incessant promotion of dangerous anthropomorphism -- the attribution of human characteristics to non-human entities. Despite what you may have gathered from watching Bambi, deer really don't have aunts. They also lack cousins, in-laws, step children, god parents and best friends.

Deer are simply beasts of the field. Yet, generations of American kids have been raised to believe that the kingdom of the wild is basically just suburbia without the houses. In the Disney universe, animal behavior conforms to the storyline, which brings us back to our friends, the lemmings.

Lemmings are mouse-like creatures indigenous to the sub-arctic circle. Legend has it that when they over-populate, they rush en mass off cliffs into the sea until the herd is sufficiently thinned to sustain itself. At that point, the remaining members halt the stampede and resume procreating in preparation for the next such outing.

The wags at the old National Lampoon analyzed this phenomenon and concluded that the brighter lemmings would most likely be found at the rear of the pack. They then coined the term "lemming effect" to describe any voluntary self-extinction undertaken by less able specimens for the good of the group.

The concept was reminiscent of former baseball executive Branch Rickey's remark that the removal of a troublesome player from his roster was "addition by subtraction" and provided a convenient shorthand for describing the collective hazards of over-population and the individual consequences of stupidity. Unfortunately, the lemmings haven't really cooperated.

Biologists, displaying that annoying scientific tendency to debunk useful myths, insist that rodents are not suicidal. They explain that when lemmings jump into water, the animals are attempting to migrate to the other shore. Sometimes they make it; sometimes they don't.

When production on White Wilderness began in Canada, film makers imported lemmings from Norway to re-create the climatic mass extinction. Because the film was not an animated feature, they were stuck trying to get the little critters to follow the script.

As the Nordic vermin exhibited no apparent inclination toward self-destruction, the film crew reportedly herded them onto a rotating platform, thus forcing hundreds of otherwise well-adjusted rodents to hurl themselves off a cliff into a river near Calgary, which was supposed to be the Arctic Ocean. Strange behavior for a company whose beloved corporate logo is a mouse.

Whether a function of modern man's relative isolation from nature, or the generally sanguine depiction of the wild in films produced by companies like Disney, there seems to be a growing tendency for private individuals to adopt exotic pets -- often with disastrous consequences.

  • Last February in Connecticut, Travis, a 200-pound pet chimpanzee, mauled 55-year-old Charla Nash. She was left without hands, nose, lips, eyelids and her facial structure. After police shot and killed Travis, his owner, Sandra Herold, explained that her pet was normally affectionate and playful. She expressed hope that the practice of living with wild apes wouldn't be condemned because of one aberrant incident.
  • Another pet chimp recently had a bad hair day in rural Missouri. Timmy, who had escaped from home, was killed by police after he opened the driver's door of a squad car and attacked the officer inside.
  • In Florida, Cathie Ake was crushed to death by her 1,800 pound pet camel when he attacked her during mating season.
  • Timothy Treadwell, the posthumous star of the documentary, Grizzly Man, went camping with his girlfriend among the wild bears in an Alaskan nature preserve. Apparently, one of the grizzlies didn't get the memo about not being a threat to humans because their remains were later found by park rangers.
  • Earlier this week at the Berlin Zoo, a female visitor scaled the wall at the polar bear pit and dove into a pool within to swim with the magnificent beasts. She's currently recovering from extensive bite wounds as zoo-keepers were able to distract the attacking bears long enough to pull her to safety. Her rescuers speculate that she was trying to befriend the animals.

Mass suicide among rodents may be dead as a scientific concept, but the lemming effect is apparently alive and well.
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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