Felix Salten’s Bambi: A Life in the Woods—which first appeared in English 90 years ago this summer—is now better known as the inspiration for Disney’s charming children’s fable, with its poignant, if traumatic, introduction to mortality. Yet the novel is much more. Despite the talking animals, Bambi is a realistic tale of life in the woods that does not shrink from the beauty or the ugliness of nature. It is an early environmental novel based on the notion that animals are unique individuals. Over the decades, however, a patina of sentimentality settled upon Bambi, obscuring its original defense of animal selfhood and leaving its title character locked in a prison of cuteness. Thanks largely to the film, Bambi became an eternal fawn, forever the clumsy creature frolicking with Thumper. His life in the woods is merely a childhood. Bambi never lost his spots.
The forgotten Bambi offers a lesson that the film forgoes and that has been sorely missed, especially in America, where prohibitions on cruelty to animals remain riddled with loopholes. Bambi should remind us that animals are more than instinct-driven machines—they are conscious beings with their own histories, entitled to moral consideration of the same quality, if not the same content, as that accorded to human beings.
In his animal characters, Salten emphasized, without inventing, all the qualities that in humans persuade us of their moral worth: individuality, subjectivity, and—to turn to the German term—Leidensfähigkeit, or the capacity for suffering. Yet Salten mostly maintained fidelity to nature. With the exception of talking, his animals never do anything of which their real-life counterparts would be incapable. Moreover, Bambi’s forest is a brutal place, far from the idyll envisioned in the film. This, for example, is the fate of one of Bambi’s neighbors: “Another time the squirrel raced about with a great wound in his neck where the ferret had caught him. … He ran about for an hour, then suddenly crumpled up, fell across a branch, and dropped dead in the snow. A couple of magpies flew down at once to begin their meal.”
Although the film evokes sympathy for its animal characters, it does so only by jettisoning some realities of nature. Man, for instance, is the only predator in Disney’s Bambi. For all the attention that the animators paid to the naturalistic depiction of wildlife—down to perfecting the perspective on Bambi’s antlers as he turns his head—concern for what animals actually do in the wild went by the wayside, and Bambi, Thumper, Flower, and Friend Owl became comic caricatures.1 The enduring moral impact of the film has been to generate a prejudice against hunting specifically.
This would have puzzled Salten. An avid hunter, he killed around two hundred roebucks in his lifetime.2 In fact, it was precisely his experience observing animals in nature, from his childhood hikes in the Vienna Woods to his adult forays into the hunting preserve at Stockerau, that led him to believe that thinking souls dwelled in the bodies of those animals. To him, this was no paradox. “Bambi would never have come into being,” he wrote, “if I had never aimed my bullet at the head of a roebuck or an elk.”3
Born Sigmund Salzmann to a Jewish family from Pest, Hungary, Salten was already a successful journalist when he began work on Bambi a few years after the First World War. Salten’s parallel interests in urban culture and the world of nature turned him into an ambassador for both. He belonged to a generation of literati that came of age in the 1890s—the so-called Young Vienna set—which included the giants of fin-de-siècle Austrian literature, among whom Salten would become the most prominent journalist.
Beginning in 1912, Salten occupied a prestigious position as a feuilletonist for Vienna’s premier newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse, where he remained until shortly after the Anschluss.4 An idiosyncrasy of the journalism of its day, the feuilleton joined criticism, exposition, and literature to make an unabashedly subjective essay that ran below the fold on the newspaper’s front page. The genre suited Salten perfectly, and his long-standing relationship with the paper gave him a venue for his first animal story: Bambi was serialized in the Neue Freie Presse in fall 1922. The book came out the following year from the Ullstein publishing house, and later, more successfully, under the auspices of Paul Zsolnay. The American publisher Simon & Schuster soon took an interest and brought this sleeper animal rights classic to the States five years later.
“Bambi” dignifies its subjects by furnishing them with whole and independent lives. It raises them to the level of moral beings worthy of humane treatment but not removed from the hard facts of survival.
The lessons of Bambi have only become more pertinent in the intervening years. The already objectionable abattoir, a regular urban nuisance in 19th-century European cities, evolved in 20th-century America into the industrial slaughterhouse, supplied by a network of factory farms. We feed ourselves on the flesh of animals raised and slaughtered in these deplorable conditions. We subject animals to experimentation for causes both noble, such as eradicating lethal diseases, and base, like marketing diesel-powered vehicles.5 We decorate our bodies with products tested on animals. One could say that American prosperity is built on animal slavery.6
In spite of the concern Americans exhibit for dogs and cats, other domestic species, especially livestock, remain chattel. The Animal Welfare Act, the only federal law that covers the treatment of animals in laboratories, specifically exempts from its protection the most common research subjects—rats and mice—as well as “farm animals … used or intended for use as food.”7 The federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which covers the treatment of farm animals at the slaughterhouse, specifically exempts chickens, the most numerous of the animals raised for meat in America.8
This state of affairs reflects the dominant view of the relationship between members of the species Homo sapiens and all other terrestrial species: that “human” is fundamentally different from and superior to “animal.” Salten’s Bambi undermines that idea, not by insisting on a crude isomorphism between humans and animals but through a frank depiction of their similarities and differences. The climactic scene of the novel even explicitly elides the human-animal divide, calling attention to the shared vulnerability of all living beings.
The animals of Bambi’s forest live in such awe of human beings that they refer to them with the godlike, capitalized pronoun He. The bewildering superiority of human technology inspires crippling fear of His “third hand,” his gun, capable of killing instantly and at a distance. Toward the end of the story, Bambi’s father takes him to see the corpse of a hunter.
“Do you see, Bambi,” the old stag went on, “do you see how He’s lying there dead, like one of us? Listen, Bambi. He isn’t all-powerful as they say. Everything that lives and grows doesn’t come from Him. He isn’t above us. He’s just the same as we are. He has the same fears, the same needs, and suffers in the same way. He can be killed like us, and then He lies helpless on the ground like all the rest of us, as you see him now.”
Perhaps less realistically, the stag completes Bambi’s education with a spiritual lesson. “There is Another who is over us all, over us and over him,” Bambi concludes. This most trenchant scene is completely absent from the story of Bambi’s animated doppelgänger.
This moment, critics might say, strays too close to anthropomorphism. Yet Salten was convinced that animals possess some supposedly human-specific qualities, such as rudimentary communication and some degree of reason. Rendering them with expanded versions of those traits, necessary for a novel, is not a complete fiction. It was morally imperative as well, a means of teaching humans to value animals. In Salten’s own words: “Always try to humanize the animal; that way you discourage humans from brutality.”9
Salten’s variety of humanizing should not be mistaken for the sort that puts bears in coats and top hats or sends rabbits careening over frozen lakes like furry figure skaters. Rather, it begins with the observation that, like humans, animals have their own life histories, their own personalities. And while every creature lives within the boundaries circumscribed by its species, those boundaries may encompass enough “human” territory to justify regarding that creature as a (nonhuman) person.
In making this case, Salten drew on a strain of German novels that detail the spiritual and mental formation of an individual, the bildungsroman. These stories traditionally feature a young man growing into adulthood and emphasize the lessons he learns as he comes of age. Bambi’s spiritual realization upon seeing His dead body could have come straight out of such a novel, as could his gradual journey to adulthood. The adorable Bambi of the novel’s early pages, to whom it seemed perfectly natural that “question after question should come into his mind continually and without effort,” grows into the cautious, reserved Bambi of the novel’s end, whose conservative nature—and an instinct characteristic of the males of his species—renders him unable to approach his first love, Faline, in a last chance encounter.
Salten reinforced the notion of animal selfhood by calling his story a “life.” The German Lebensgeschichte is one of several terms that mean “the story of a life.” It can refer to the casual retelling of one’s own “life story” as well as to the written account that a biographer might provide. That sense is carried over into the English translation, if one remembers the usage of the English word “life” to mean “biography.” Bambi recounts not the archetypal life of Odocoileus virginianus or Capreolus capreolus but the particular life of one individual animal.
Disney’s film has obscured much of the nuance that Salten carefully wove into his novel. Its animals routinely exceed the capabilities of their real-life counterparts and are more like types more than individuals. The predators apparently subsist on air and water. The happy ending—a grown Bambi looking down on his mate and two children—more closely resembles the snug nuclear family of American mores than the reproductive lives of actual deer.10 The film’s most famous scene, which has horrified children the world over, inspired a nationwide reaction against deer hunting, an oddly narrow response and one hunters still bitterly resent.11 The animated Bambi’s principal role today—and this may not be all Disney’s fault—is as a receptacle for sentimentality about cute animals, a phenomenon long ago termed the “Bambi effect.” It reinforces the existing prejudice that favors the lives of the adorable over those of the homely and elevates cuteness to the status of a moral value.
Although Salten’s novel likewise contains scenes of overwhelming cuteness, its triumph is in another area entirely. Bambi dignifies its subjects by furnishing them with whole and independent lives. It raises them to the level of moral beings worthy of humane treatment but not removed from the hard facts of survival. Death does not intrude on Salten’s forest. It belongs there as much as life does. Salten’s many hours spent in the woods and his own efforts at killing God’s little creatures persuaded him that inside the animals that people our planet dwell minds that think and suffer. If we are going to kill, it should be quick, and our quarry should have a chance to escape. Anything else is brutality.
- For more on the lengths to which Disney Studios went to animate Bambi and his environment accurately, see Ralph H. Lutts, “The Trouble with Bambi: Walt Disney’s Bambi and the American Vision of Nature,” Forest and Conservation History, vol. 36 (October 1992). ↩
- Beverley Driver Eddy, Felix Salten: Man of Many Faces (Ariadne, 2010), p. 201. ↩
- Salten to “Herrn Welder,” April 25, 1940, quoted in Eddy, Felix Salten, p. 200, note 13. ↩
- Eddy, Felix Salten, pp. 153, 281. The Presse was “Aryanized” under the National Socialist regime. It fired Salten “without notice” in April 1938. ↩
- Jack Ewing, “German Carmakers Criticized for Research on Monkeys,” New York Times, January 28, 2018. ↩
- Particularly, the slavery of domestic animals. Wild animals, especially endangered species, enjoy more protection, but it applies to species as a whole, not to individual animals. No individual bald eagle will ever be compensated for the destruction of its nest. ↩
- U.S.C. Title 7 §2132 (g). ↩
- U.S.C. Title 7 §1902. See also Dan Nosowitz, “Poultry Aren’t Listed under the Humane Slaughter Rule. Why?,” Modern Farmer, December 1, 2017. ↩
- The original German is quoted in Bartell Berg, “Nature and Environment in Nineteenth-Century Austrian Literature” (PhD diss., Washington University in St. Louis, 2009), p. 224. This is my own translation of the subtlety-laden phrase Suche nur immer das Tier zu vermenschlichen, so hinderst du den Menschen am Vertieren. Here, the chiastic repetition of the terms for human and animal—Mensch and Tier—emphasizes the covert moral content of the two categories by pairing them with their modified forms, vermenschlichen, to anthropomorphize, and vertieren, to mistreat in an inhumane fashion. Thus, to be an animal (ein Tier) is to be the appropriate target of brutal treatment (Vertieren), a notion that exists in English too. We commonly say that the Nazis packed their victims into train cars “like cattle.” To treat someone “like an animal” is to treat them immorally. This implies that treating an animal in the same fashion is entirely appropriate, a notion that Salten would resist. ↩
- It does get right the typical number of fawns borne by a mother deer. ↩
- The magazine Outdoor Life has probably the longest track record of criticizing the film on these grounds. Raymond J. Brown, in 1942 the editor of the magazine, published a condemnation of the film shortly after it appeared (see Lutts, “The Trouble with Bambi”). Bambi has since become the magazine’s bête noire: the meddling cervid merits almost one hostile mention a year in the magazine’s digital archive, most colorfully in the 2008 blog post, “Bambi, That Evil, Rotten, No-Good Vermin.” ↩