Column: The Thrill of the Chase

Several decades ago, naturalists, as they were called back then, noticed rapid expansions and abrupt collapses in lemmings populations. These small rodents are wildly spread across Canada, populating grasslands in Arctic and subarctic tundras.  In many regions, their numbers swell briefly and then they virtually disappear.  Observers without an explanation for this population phenomenon suggested that the creatures committed suicide by jumping off cliffs when they became too numerous and succumbed to a mass psychosis.  This strange and distinctly human interpretation of events gained wider acceptance when the Walt Disney company made a documentary entitled “White Wilderness” in 1958. The filming showed the mass lemming ‘suicide’ long rumored to occur on a regular basis. Unfortunately for scientist watching the allegedly natural event, the entire sequence was staged.

The Disney company started with a plan to film the mass suicide even before they had established that it had ever occurred.  They were working in an area of Canada that had no lemmings, suicidal or not.  Consequently they had to purchase the animals from remote families that kept them as pets and ship them to the film crew.  The myth was that the lemmings threw themselves off cliffs into the ocean where they drowned.  There was no ocean and few cliffs near the film site, and so the best the film crew could come up with was a moderately elevated plateau overlooking a river. Having identified the site for this ‘natural event,’ they were still hampered by the reluctance of their lemmings to approach the edge of the elevation and risk falling over the edge.  They resorted to dogs to drive the horrified rodents toward the ‘cliff’s’ edge.  When the dogs failed to force more than a few of the rodents over the edge, the film crew resorted to tossing the uncooperative mammals over the edge and into the river. Dead lemmings accumulated in the waters below, and the filming was declared a success.

When I heard of this Disney atrocity, I wondered what was the real explanation for the population collapse and why were the dogs complicit in this demented farce. Actually I knew the answer to my initial question from work done in the Eighteenth Century by an economist named Thomas Malthus.  His animal for population studies was Homo sapiens, human beings, rather than lemmings.  He observed that the population in Europe routinely exploded when there was an excess of resources, such as food, and that it collapsed when the supply of resources did not keep up with the population growth.  The population would overshoot this critical point on the supply graph and would continue to increase despite the inadequacy of resources to sustain the population.  Invariably and inevitably the population would simply ‘fall off a cliff’ as it faced famine, disease, or war.  It turns out that lemmings are not as fickle as humans and much of their population decline is a consequence of dispersal as local food supplies are depleted and infertility as poor female diets limit reproduction.  Mass suicides and mass murders appear to be a uniquely human behavior.

And so my attention turned to the dogs.  What did they get out of driving lemmings to the cliff edge? There is no evidence or testimony to suggest that they were beaten or otherwise forced to participate in this crime against lemmings. They did not see the lemmings as natural competitors for scarce resources.  The dogs were well-fed and well-sheltered.  They had not grown up annoyed or harassed by lemmings.  Undoubtedly, most if not all of them had never met a lemming before the adventure in Canada. For those of us who have observed dogs chasing dead leaves falling from the trees in recent weeks, the answer is obvious.  They did it because they enjoyed it.  They did not rationalize or try to excuse their actions with complex theories.  They chased lemmings because it made them feel good.

Which brings us to the Covid-19 pandemic, but not as it relates to Malthusian Theory, but rather as it relates to those chasing after and harassing the people who want to observe pandemic-limiting measures. Indeed, according to Mr. Malthus with the world’s human population exploding to nearly 8 billion souls on a planet that can easily provide adequate resources (and a comfortable lifestyle) for about 2 billion people, the population should collapse.  In fact, we are having many famines and wars, and Covid-19 is only one of many diseases spreading amongst us or waiting in the wings of a forest, cave, or biological warfare laboratory to further decimate our ranks, but we have enough medical knowledge to ward of the diseases that currently threaten us.  What we have failed at is getting enough people to accept life-saving measures that would halt the pandemic. Some attribute this to problems with education, suspicion of governing bodies, or simply distrust of science and scientists. I disagree.  I believe the people forcing back to the edge those who want to adopt life-saving measures are doing it for the same reason as the dogs in the Arctic: they enjoy it.

A group of 50 ‘adults’ stormed a food court on Staten Island in New York announcing that they refused to wear masks and demanded to be served.  The terrified, minimum-wage employees had not been trained to deal with such confrontations and obediently served the law-breakers.  No arrests were made, and no citations were issued.  Gary Kirby, a bar owner in Florida, had his employees announce to every person entering his establishment that they were not allowed to wear masks.  When a couple entered and put on masks to keep from picking up Covid-19 from any of the maskless bar patrons and taking it home to their immunosuppressed son, they were unceremoniously ejected from the establishment.  School board meetings have been regularly disrupted and school board members routinely threatened by parents demanding that their children not be obliged (or in some cases, allowed) to wear protective masks in school. The list of confrontations is endless and is everywhere.  

Some say they are demonstrating for their constitutional rights, but no such right to enable the spread of a pandemic is embodied in our Constitution.  Some say it infringes on their religious freedom, but it is not religious leaders or even religious documents supporting their opposition.  In the final analysis, it is the joy of chasing lemmings and leaves that inspire the dogs.  It is the opportunity to instill terror in our fellow humans that drives this opposition to survival measures. The vaccine-refusing, maskless, superspreader-event-attendees are enjoying themselves. Let us hope the outcome is better for all of us (including the vaccine-refusing, maskless, superspreader-event-attendees) than it was for Disney’s lemmings.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.