THE EVERYDAY HUNTER®: The Bambi Model of Wildlife Conservation

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.

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 was Bambi: A Life in the Woods, and it was published in the United States in 1928.

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 exterminate species.

(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 told 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 an easy and symbiotic relationship, 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 of Bambi 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 predator.

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.