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Wildlife Documentaries: Violation of Animal’s Privacy?

Wildlife Documentaries: Violation of Animal’s Privacy?

Anyone who has ever ventured near a bird’s nest or skunk’s domain knows when an animal is aware of their presence. Be it a flap of feathers or pungent stench, an animal will let you know when you have gotten just a little too close for comfort. Wildlife documentarians are used to such warning signals and generally ignore them to get the footage of everyday animal life. But some argue that this is unfair to wildlife. The Independent reports on a claim that producers of nature shows ignore privacy ethics for animals. People are more concerned with how animals should be filmed, never considering if they should be filmed at all.

Professor Brett Mills of the University of East Anglia says video footage of animals mating or giving birth in their burrows crosses an ethical line. As Mill wrote in the Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, “Instead of thinking we’ll leave it alone, filmmakers decide the only solution is to develop new technology so they can film it … We have an assumption that humans have some right to privacy, so why do we not assume that for other species, particularly when they are engaging in behavior that suggests they don’t want to be seen?” Mills points out that no matter what an animal does on camera, it will be seen as fair game for viewers. Further, the overly aggressive actions of filmmakers can alter animal behavior.

Mills says the rise of technologies for non-invasive filming does not naturally negate a need to consider the animal’s rights. He refers to the BBC’s 2009 series “Nature’s Great Events.” In this documentary, a narwhal apparently fled the camera to hide under an Arctic ice sheet. Mills acknowledges that an animal’s right to privacy may seem odd, but that it should not be dismissed. It is often obvious when animals are uneasy about a cameraman’s presence, so Mills argues that we can never really know if they are giving consent to be filmed. Further, filming the animals mating or giving birth are considered private human functions and something we would never ethically do without expressed consent.

Others conclude that viewing wildlife in its natural habitat is key to preserving our ecosystem. As The BBC’s Natural History unit in Bristol told The Guardian, “Constantly developing filming technology gives wildlife film-makers the ability to film animal behavior with minimal disruption to the animal. Film-makers work very closely with scientists whose work studying the complexity of animal lives is vital for wildlife conservation.”

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Read more: Animal Rights, Do Good, Nature & Wildlife, Pets, ,

By Katherine Butler, MNN

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Megan, selected from Mother Nature Network

Mother Nature Network's mission is to help you improve your world. From covering the latest news on health, science, sustainable business practices and the latest trends in eco-friendly technology, MNN.com strives to give you the accurate, unbiased information you need to improve your world locally, globally, and personally – all in a distinctive thoughtful, straightforward, and fun style.

97 comments

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9:02AM PST on Feb 25, 2014

I think another way to phrase this, or at least it's a very similar concern, is that "how much is all of this stressing out the animal?" Stress can take a huge toll on an animal. A deer can die from stress almost immediately. A coyote in the winter can be so low on nutrition that it can run itself to death in minutes if it's frightened. Great care should be taken to prevent stressing the animals out. That should be the defining ethic, rather than a debate on "consent." Animals can't sign a waver of consent, so that debate could last forever.

8:54AM PST on Feb 25, 2014

Interesting perspective, thanks for writing

10:31AM PST on Nov 8, 2011

noted

7:09PM PDT on May 29, 2011

Agree with Carri K.
Thank you Megan.

7:10AM PST on Feb 19, 2011

They do not even know someone is there. They are not being disturbed. Wow this is radical and extreme into the beyonds. I think people just like to be drama queens just because they have nothing better to do. Maybe Get a better hobby and help make this world a better place.

1:58PM PST on Jan 13, 2011

If we are disturbing the animal by filming it, it is wrong to film it. That's just common sense.

It's one of the problems I have with certain religions who believe God gave man dominion over the beasts of the fields. Ridiculous. (With my apologies to those who adhere to this belief, I have to say it isn't exactly what a deity should be doing.)

7:13AM PST on Jan 12, 2011

fantastic. I always thought we should just listen to make beleive myths about animals, or fiction. poor coyotes, being turned into animals for our "edutainment" their lives torn up for our sick enjoyment and voyeurism.

we should go back to when animals spoke, created the world, cause thunderstorms or rule over things like fire.

I thought we moved to a better way to study animals? and not the old way when we chased them in cameras or rigged situations?

12:30PM PDT on Oct 3, 2010

Humans hide from cameras during mating and birth due to a culture shunning of these topics and an embarrassment that likely doesn't exist in most other species. It also comes from a stress caused by being in a vulnerable situation. The latter should be considered from an ethical point of view, but because the animal is stressed, not a right to privacy.
"Humans are the only species that blush, and the only ones who need to"
- An animal behavior specialist

9:15PM PDT on Sep 17, 2010

A number of the comments I've read tonight amaze me how many people anthropomorphize animals with statements like "we should ask the animals' permission." Really? And do you honestly believe this would be somehow less disruptive to the animal's life?

I totally agree that nature documentaries should be done in a way that is respectful of the creatures being photographed and not be invasive. Perhaps I am naive in believing that most nature photographers are professional enough to keep this in mind. Their filming contributes to man's education and better understanding of nature, and how we all are connected in a delicate balance that is in danger of being destroyed due to man's arrogant ignorance.

3:52PM PDT on Aug 10, 2010

Putting animals in cages, aquariums, circuses, ect. for our entertainment is a violation of their privacy. If the alternative is putting up with videographers, given the choice, I'm sure they would opt for the latter.

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