Walt Disney and the Owlby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I am going to discuss the legend surrounding Walt Disney and a live owl but, before I do so, I want to take a moment to discuss what led to this week’s topic.
A woman came up to me recently after I had finished giving a presentation on Walt and his love of circuses and how they influenced him to invite me to join her family for dinner. Before I could thank her for her kindness, she added, “Having you there is the only time my husband shuts up about Disney.”
Her husband was someone I had worked with at the Walt Disney World Resort and he was passionate about Disney history and attended many of the nearly 300 different presentations I used to give for Disney cast members. Apparently, he was the Disney expert in his family and when they went to the theme parks or watched a Disney film, he eagerly shared nuggets of knowledge. However, if I was nearby, he was always silent for fear he might say something wrong about Disney and did not want to be corrected in front of his family.
I always tell folks they never need to be quiet around me and assume I know everything. I don’t. Often I will find out something new or if it is something I already know, I sometimes get a different perspective. In addition, if a correction needs to be made I try to do it quietly and privately or with the phrase “you know, I never heard that” or “I never heard that version.” Those, of course, are true statements. Sometimes, I will follow up with “this is the way I heard it”.
Another type of Disney fan I run into is the one who wants to beat “the fastest gun in town” so will be quick to try to demonstrate their superior knowledge by pointing out some mistake I made. I make mistakes all the time. I try not to make mistakes, but sometimes I get so excited about what I am talking about or distracted by what is going to happen next or whatever that I will make a flub. Fortunately, the mistakes I make are big, obvious ones so that they are easily spotted, because I am concentrating so hard on the new obscure material that I don’t pay proper attention to the well-known common information.
I did three different podcasts in a row one night and on the last one, where I was talking about the wonders of the Wilderness Lodge, I mistakenly pointed out a map of the famous expedition of “Lewis and Carroll.” Of course, I meant Lewis and Clark, but I was also working at the time on an article about Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and I was tired and just not focusing on what I was saying. The interviewer never caught my slip at the time either. When people pointed it out once it aired, it made me smile and reminded me to be more careful in the future.
When I wrote about one of my favorite films, The Rocketeer, that I had just finished watching before sitting down to write the column, I mistyped “Alan Alda” as the actor playing the role of Peevy rather than “Alan Arkin” because I was concentrating so hard on all the never before printed information to make sure it was correct.
I welcome corrections because it makes me seem so much smarter the next time I write about that subject and it is important to get the accurate information out there for people to have.
Yet another type of Disney fan I often run into is the one who wants to prove that they truly are a real Disney fan so they proudly share some type of obscure fact that unfortunately is too often incorrect, from the black square in the Dolphin resort hotel meant to be a monorail passageway (it never was) to the dust on Pride Rock in The Lion King spelling out “Sex” (it actually spells “SFX” for “special effects”) to a step from Thomas Jefferson’s home being displayed unprotected and unmarked in Liberty Square at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom (why would Disney allows something so historically valuable to be vulnerable to the Florida heat and humidity?).
At that same presentation I mentioned in the first paragraph, I did a question-and-answer session and one member of the audience stood up and asked whether I knew that the real reason Walt Disney made movies about animals is that he shot an owl as a boy and felt so guilty that every movie he made had an owl in it.
I had heard that story more than once. First, there are plenty of owls in Disney films but not in every Disney film. Just in the films made during Walt’s lifetime, the cliche of a wise old owl pops up whether as a judge in Who Killed Cock Robin? (Silly Symphony 1935) or a professor in So Dear to My Heart (1949) or Toot Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) and Adventures in Music: Melody (1953). Sometimes, the owl is a wise friend like Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone (1963) or with a twist on their supposedly expert knowledge like the pseudo-intellectual owl in the Winnie the Pooh featurettes or the misanthropic Friend Owl in Bambi (1942).
Amusingly, the original story of Dumbo had the little elephant seeking counsel from an owl doctor but legendary storymen Joe Grant and Dick Huemer were clever enough to eliminate that cliché in the version that Disney finally made.
While there is an owl that dances with Briar Rose in the forest, he doesn’t help save her from Maleficent nor do his feathered relatives guide Alice through Wonderland, or help the Dalmatian puppies cover themselves with soot or perch prominently on the shoulder of Long John Silver or do battle with a giant squid. Owls were just part of the animal kingdom being portrayed and would be more noticeable by their absence from some of the stories that Disney films told. They even appeared in films made after Walt’s passing like Big Mama popping up in The Fox and the Hound.
Some folks may even remember the attraction “The Walt Disney Story” that was at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World beginning in 1973. Among the exhibits in the preshow area was a section labeled “Naturalist” to show Walt’s devotion to animals. An audio-animatronics owl would periodically spring to life and tell the guests about the nature films produced by Disney. If you missed that presentation, you can see it online.
So there aren’t owls in every Disney film about animals. Most of them that do appear are just minor incidental characters. When was the last time any Disney fan claimed that their very favorite Disney animated character was an owl?
What about Walt killing an owl? Well, the earliest example of that story I could find in my files came from a newspaper article I recently was reviewing for Walt quotes for another article I was writing for MousePlanet.
Newspaper writer Douglas W. Churchill wrote an article for “The New York Times” that appeared March 6, 1938 titled “Disney’s ‘Philosophy’.” With all the direct quotes from Walt in the piece, it was obvious that Churchill had a nice, personal chat with the creator of Mickey Mouse.
Here is the opening of that article:
“An owl drowsing in the cool shade of a tree on a Missouri farm one afternoon 30 years ago influenced the career of a man and helped fashion the fantasy of an era. Blinking in the uncomfortable light, the bird felt hands encircling it. Instinctively it beat its wings and clawed, and just as instinctively a frightened lad of seven hurled the owl to the ground and, in his terror, stamped on it.
“That owl is the only thing that Walt Disney ever intentionally killed. The incident has haunted him over the years. Occurring in a formative period, it directed his attention, subconsciously, to the birds and gentle beasts that play such an important part of his craftsmanship, and helped to shape his philosophy.”
I have heard variations on that story over the years, including that Walt had a reoccurring nightmare about the incident for the rest of his life. One of his other reoccurring nightmares, where he would wake up wide-eyed in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, was that he had forgotten to deliver his newspapers on his paper route and his dad would be angry.
I started looking to see if I could find a direct quote from Walt himself about the owl incident. In Reel 3 of the taped interviews Walt did with writer Pete Martin for the series of articles about his life that appeared in installments in the Saturday Evening Post that were later compiled into the book credited to his daughter, The Story of Walt Disney (1957), is Walt’s remembrance of that incident when he was approximately 7 years old.
Here in Walt’s own words roughly 50 years after the fact is his version of the story:
“Something happened to me when I was on the farm (in Marceline, Missouri) there that I’ve never forgot. There was a big owl in the tree. It was a Sunday. I’ll never forget it. It was just dull. Folks were all doing something else. There was nothing for me, you know? I didn’t have anybody to play with then. So, the owl was up there.
“And he flew away and I followed him and he went over in the orchard and he landed on a low limb in the orchard. Well, I don’t know why but I wanted to catch that owl. It was one of these big brown owls. So I snuck up behind the owl and…I grabbed this owl. Well, he immediately began to claw and fight and I threw him on the ground. In my excitement, I stomped on him and I killed the owl. That thing haunted me for a long time afterward.
“I could see that darn owl in my dreams, you know? But I was just so excited. I didn’t want him. I didn’t want to kill him. But when he began to claw and everything else, I got so excited I threw him on the ground and stomped on him, you know? And I killed him. I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t have it in my mind at all. And I don’t know yet why I wanted to have that owl. It was just…I could catch him, you know? He was on a low limb there.”
So, yes, Walt did kill an owl accidentally when as a young, bored 7-year old child he got flustered and surprised and reacted without thinking to instinctively stop something that was moving around wildly and scaring him. He was sincerely and deeply sorry about that moment. I think the fact that he continued to have dreams about it shows how intensely it affected him.
Certainly, many things Walt experienced in Marceline from trains to the circus to so many other “first” experiences influenced his approach to things later in his life. The killing of the owl may indeed have influenced Walt’s philosophy that animals had just as much right to live their lives as humans do.
Marjorie Davis, Walt’s niece, remembered an incident that took place at Walt’s home in Los Angeles. “One time, the gardener was complaining because the squirrels were eating all the fruit. He had planted all these beautiful fruit trees down the canyon by the house. [The gardener had planned on poisoning the squirrels but Walt wouldn’t allow it.]. [Walt)] just said, ‘Plant some more. Plant enough for everybody. Look, you can go to the market to buy fruit. They can’t.”
In the January 1940 issue of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, there is an article titled "At Home With Walt Disney" by Elmer T. Peterson. One quote by Walt in that article stands out for me: "I couldn't kill any animal—least of all a mouse.”
Of all the stories and all the photos that have been published over the decades about Walt, not one of them is about him going hunting with anything other than a camera.