Vantage Point

WHAT ABOUT BAMBI?

He was about four years old when his parents moved to a Missouri farm. Its overgrown yard harbored cottontail rabbits, lots of them. He was enchanted by watching them and with imagination and a four-year-old's talent, he drew pictures of them playing peek-a-boo in the grass. When his older brother came in one afternoon with a rabbit he had shot, the younger boy cried. He even refused to eat the rabbit stew his mother prepared for the family dinner.

The boy's name was Walt Disney, and that early impression of animals and hunting would later appear in his animated film, "Bambi." Released in 1942, the film still influences the way people think about nature.

"Bambi" was based on a novel of the same name by Felix Salten, a Hungarian, who published the book in Vienna in 1924. Salten was a hunter; he even owned a private hunting preserve outside of Vienna. But he lived in an era dominated by extremism, both artistic and political. Salten produced a potent anti-hunting novel. He also secretly published pornography. But Bambi the novel would likely be forgotten today were it not for the Missouri farm boy, Walt Disney.

The movie has been the subject of much discussion and writing. Raymond J. Brown, the editor of Outdoor Life called it, "the worst insult ever offered in any form to American sportsmen." Field and Stream editor Warren Page coined the term the "Bambi Syndrome" to describe the way the movie portrays an idealized nature, with humans as the evil, omnipotent enemy. Film critic Roger Ebert said the movie is "a parable of sexism, nihilism, and despair, portraying absentee fathers and passive mothers in a world of death and violence."

Writer Matt Carmill provides much of the historical context for both Bambi, the novel, and "Bambi," the movie, in his article, "The Bambi Syndrome," published in Natural History magazine. "On September 1, 1939, the day that German tanks struck across the Polish border and plunged Europe into World War II, the film's story editor ... announced that all predators other than Homo sapiens had to be excised from the script. '...their one common enemy is Man. That's the conflict there - and keep it simple.'"

Out of human strife, then, came the lilting tunes and the cute, talking animals with permanently dilated eyes. The movie reflected both repugnance for humans and their weapons of war and a glimpse of an ideal nature where no death occurs unless caused by humans.

Carmill also points out the central contrast between Salten's book and Disney's film. In the novel, the animals "learn," through the death of a poacher, that humans can die, just like animals. They're not above nature, but part of nature. Salten's book was also truer to natural details than Disney's treatment, though he still had animals conversing, thinking and feeling like humans.

Ralph Lutts, author of the book, The Nature Fakers, sees this anthropomorphism as one of the deadliest obstacles to children learning about nature. "Children can't make the distinction," he said, "between what they see in movies or read in books and what really goes on in nature."

I have to give kids a little more credit, I guess. Most of us don't grow up believing animals talk any more than we believe frogs can turn into princes. Indeed, imagination is one of the central human qualities which sets us apart from animals. Anthropomorphism has been around since before Aesop. The danger, as I see it, is that today's children may never have the opportunity to experience nature as it really is.

"Bambi" and other films like it unquestionably distort our perception of nature. The Bambi view of the world portrays humans as cruel destroyers of nature instead of intelligent conservators of nature. That view shouldn't go unchallenged.

The Conservation Department is committed to providing opportunity for kids to learn about the potential for humans' positive impact on and role in the natural world. Nature Centers, youth hunts, curriculum materials, a new video game, and many other products appeal to kids and portray a real, unromanticized view of nature that's every bit as fun (even more!) than the nature fakery version.

KSL