Are you concerned enough about animals’ Right to Privacy?

Dr Brett Mills’ study ‘Television wildlife documentaries and animals’ right to privacy’ analyses the making of documentaries that accompanied the BBC wildlife series Nature’s Great Events (2009). Exploring the debates on ethics, animal welfare and rights and human rights, Dr Mills suggests that animals have a right to privacy but this is turned into a challenge for the production teams, who use newer forms of technology to overcome species’ desire not to be seen…

“This is an important debate for two reasons. Firstly, wildlife documentaries are usually seen as important pieces of public service broadcasting, and it’s therefore worth us thinking about the ethical contexts within which such productions exist. Secondly, such documentaries are the key way in which many people ‘encounter’ a range of species from all over the globe, and so they therefore contribute to how we think about other species and human/animal interactions. By exploring what wildlife documentaries do, and how they do it, I hope to contribute to environmental debates at a time when the global effects of human behaviour are rightly under scrutiny.”

At the heart of the documentary project is the necessity for animals to be seen. Dr Mills suggests that this necessity itself raises a series of ethical concerns, but these seem to be sidelined in the moral debates surrounding wildlife documentaries. The use of sophisticated aerial technology to film animals, for example, is justified because it does not disturb them, yet the question of whether it is appropriate to film animals in this way is not raised. Underpinning such action is an assumption that animals have no right to privacy, and that the camera crew have no need to determine whether those animals consent to being filmed.

Unlike human activities, a distinction of the public and the private is not made in the animal world. There are many activities which animals engage in which are common to wildlife documentary stories but which are rendered extremely private in the human realm; mating, giving birth, and dying are recurring characteristics in nature documentaries, but the human version of these activities remains largely absent from broadcasting.

Dr Mills said: “It might at first seem odd to claim that animals might have a right to privacy. Privacy, as it is commonly understood, is a culturally human concept. The key idea is to think about animals in terms of the public/private distinction. We can never really know if animals are giving consent, but they often do engage in forms of behaviour which suggest they’d rather not encounter humans, and we might want to think about equating this with a desire for privacy.

Anthropomorphism carried to a logically absurd extreme.

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