by Steve Sorensen (Originally published in the Warren Times Observer
, August 31, 2013.)
Have you ever thought about what’s going on in the woods when you’re
not there? Some would have us believe that all the animals are enjoying a long,
peaceful life, the pleasant company of their animal friends, and the natural safety
of the forest. And that when man steps into that forest, everything changes.
Hunters often say many people get their ideas
about wildlife from
cartoons, but how did that happen?
Where does that image come from? It comes from
Walt Disney. But old Walt didn’t come up with it himself. He got it from a 1923
novel written by an Austrian writer with the pen name Felix Salten. The book
A Life in the Woods
, and it was published in the United States in
By the time Mr. Disney read Bambi, his studio was in
what would later be known as “the Golden Age of Animation,” and this new
lovable deer character would be a big moneymaker in a lineup that already
included Snow White, Mickey Mouse and Dumbo. But Bambi would be more
controversial. Bambi helped stir up public opposition to hunting.
The stage was set by at least three developments:
(1.) Market hunting had gone away, mostly because
hunters realized that game populations could not continue to meet the demands
of meat for city restaurants, and indiscriminate hunting had the potential to
(2.) The advent of refrigeration and
transcontinental rail lines introduced industrialization to meat production.
Western cattle herds came quickly to Midwestern slaughterhouses and eastern
markets, which made it common for most people to avoid killing their own meat.
(3.) And northern post-Civil War cities benefitted
from technology, becoming more urbanized and wealthier, which grew the educated
and economically comfortable urban upper classes. Their primary understanding
of hunting had been market hunting. Now they preferred to appreciate deer for
their elegance and beauty.
Into those societal trends stepped Bambi,
tailor-made to broaden the anti-hunting message to the masses.
Hunters often say many people get their ideas
about wildlife from cartoons, but exactly how did that happen? More to the
point, what was it about Bambi that gave people ideas about
wildlife conservation? Several things.
► Bambi: A Life in the Woods clearly offered the view that man is the problem. The death of Bambi’s mother was at the hands of an
evil hunter. Even without picturing the hunter, the event traumatized not only the
Bambi character, but millions of children who watched the movie. Many even took
home a clear mental picture of the evil hunter, though they never even saw him.
► The fictional forest setting was created from
artists’ storyboards which conveyed the idea that life in the wild was serene,
that all the forest’s animals enjoyed easy and symbiotic relationships, and
that animals were safe and happy until man entered the woods.
► The cartoon characters were humanized. Artists’
drawings proportioned animal faces to mimic infantile human shapes as a way to convey
human emotions. Script writers gave each animal a personality any audience
could identify with and care about as individuals.
Many anti-hunters don’t know it, but it’s because
that they think man is the problem, and if man would just keep his guns out of
the woods all the animals would get along nicely. It led them to preach a
message never before heard – a false message that man is a creature totally
separate from nature. And lots of people loved the message.
But it wasn’t just non-hunters. The movie even
influenced hunters. Hunters began to renounce the killing of does at a time
when many deer populations began to flourish as never before. As the wilderness
was tamed from sea to shining sea, large predators became scarce, and man was
virtually the only predator deer had across most of the continent. Social
pressure and changing demographics were seeking to reduce man’s influence as a
The year after Disney released the film, famous
naturalist Aldo Leopold advocated an antlerless deer season in Wisconsin to
reduce an overpopulated herd and diminish its rate of reproduction. Scholarly
studies have attributed the failure of Leopold’s proposal to public sentiment
stirred by Bambi, a Life in the Woods.
And that’s how a cartoon became some people’s
model for wildlife conservation – a cartoon that depicts hunters as evil,
animals as talking friends, buck fawns as “princes,” and the forest as a place
where all animals do their loving in the springtime.
Of course, if a cartoon would depict what really goes on in the woods when you're not there, it would need to be rated R.