Do Animals Have a Right to Privacy?

Dr. Brett Mills of the University of East Anglia doesn't seem to have a friend in the world.  He's questioned whether documentary film makers should stick their cameras into the private space of wild animals.  The commenters at the Daily Mail all seem to think he's a "nutter" and both people who sent me the link (thank you!) added a derisive comment.  The article even quotes a PETA spokesman as saying "no harm, no foul." So how about it?

I briefly talk about the issue in my book--
Part of the difficulty of simply stating what can and can’t be done to animals is that respectfulness has fuzzy boundaries. .... A friend of mine recently remarked that birdwatchers are a bit like stalkers, the way they pursue birds and spy on them with binoculars. Stalking people is disrespectful, but what about stalking birds? Must birdwatchers think hard about their hobby? To produce the marvelous series The Life of Mammals, David Attenborough’s film crews surreptitiously invaded the space of animals in the wild. In one particularly fascinating segment, they drilled down into the burrow of a platypus – an egg-laying mammal – and inserted a periscope-like camera, giving viewers a chance to see a drop of milk emerge from the mother's skin and a blind, wriggling tiny newborn. It’s fascinating footage, but does this amount to a disrespectful violation of the private space of these animals?
Is "no" really, obviously, the right answer?  Here's the footage (about 3:15)--

David Attenborough (a hero in my house) is warm and wonderful, but drilling into that burrow does strike me as overbearing, intrusive, certainly questionable.  But how can that be an appropriate reaction if the platypus had no awareness of the probe and wasn't hurt?

Things to think about before trying to say:
  • The Truman Show.  People inside the bubble aren't aware that they are on camera, and aren't hurt by it.Yet the audience on the outside are doing something wrong.
  • Babies.  Suppose a psychologist wants 24 hour footage of an infant.  Should I allow a camera to trail my child, assuming the footage will be anonymous and the child will never find out?
  • More about babies.  Why not blow off some steam while taking care of your infant? You could address him as "you little asshole" or worse.  The kid won't be aware of it, so "no harm, no foul"?
  • The severely retarded.  Why not set up a webcam so weirdos can watch them take baths, and the like?  They'll never know it, so "no harm, no foul"?
None of these cases is exactly analogous, but they do challenge the idea that the documentarian's invisibility is completely exculpatory.

OK, so what's wrong with drilling into the burrow of a platypus?   I would say this:  the platypus has a "subjectivity" of her own--a point of view, a set of experiences.  To drill in and watch is to treat this "subject" purely as an "object." As an object of fascination and wonder, so it's not all bad.  But it's dubious.

In the article, Dr. Mills says, "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, such as running away or building a burrow. The question constantly posed by wildlife documentaries is how animals should be filmed  -  they never ask whether animals should be filmed at all."
The platypus enters the burrow for privacy and protection.  It's not anthropomorphic or far-fetched to think that's what she prefers.  To intrude and watch is therefore quite clearly to act on your own preferences and to flout the animal's.  As in, "I don't care if you want to be watched or not.  I can, so I will." The filmmaker is insisting on his own point of view, instead of empathizing with the animal's.

But is it really wrong, really disrespectful?  I did leave this as an open question in my book. I didn't say Yes, but I think it's wrong to laugh off Dr. Mills, as if the answer were obviously No.

P.S.  What if there are invisible alien intelligences drifting around, completely impossible for us to detect? What if there's an invisible camera pointed at your face right now, and your image is being beamed to billions of aliens, scattered across the universe? And what if they are all thinking that you're weird looking, what with your bizarre nasal protrusion, the tongue that occasionally protrudes from your mouth, your glassy eyes, etc.  Isn't there something wrong with what they're doing?


Taylor said...

Good post. Your alien-intelligences reminded me of this:

"No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their affairs they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise and study the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water."

Now imagine an immortal, omniscient intelligence, forever watching us and even knowing our thoughts before we think them. Is God the ultimate affront to human dignity?

amos said...

There seems to be two types of examples in your post.

1. Animals who seek protection in a burrow or nest of some sorts, what might be called a proto-need for privacy.

2. Beings, for example, babies, who are totally unconscious of whether they are being filmed or insulted.

In case one, I would say that one is violating the creature's privacy and that it is wrong. In case two, I don't see anything wrong about filming a baby or about insulting one, when a caretaker has lost his or her patience, which can frequently occur with a new-born baby.

Faust said...

I don't see it. No harm no foul? No harm no foul. At least for animals.

I'm not even sure you're going to get wide consensus on human privacy. You're definitely not going to get it on animal privacy.

As for the aliens: notice how it's very important to your attempt to pump an intution that you say "And what if they are all thinking that you're weird looking, what with your bizarre nasal protrusion, the tongue that occasionally protrudes from your mouth, your glassy eyes, etc." Why add this? The only thing you should be considering is the questions "would it be wrong for aliens to observe us the way we observe animals," how they think about it seems superflous. Would it harm your question to write

"What if there's an invisible camera pointed at your face right now, and your image is being beamed to billions of aliens, scattered across the universe? And what if they are all thinking that you're facinating and remarkable, that they will contact you someday when you are ready to experience the wonders of the universe etc."

Is there STILL something wrong with what they are doing?

Mel said...

Concerning the privacy of animals, isn't there also the issue of intent? It's not only whether the subject has awareness and wasn't obviously hurt. What is the intent of the viewer/researcher? If the intent is frivolous, purely selfish, or if such observations will not benefit any other being in any way... THAT at least we should consider wrong. But because we do not know enough about the animal mind, I agree the answer isn't obviously "no."

Yet as for the questions about babies and severely retarded individuals...

But babies are aware! Moreover, babies acquire language by storing/processing sounds/speech in their brains as well as all kinds of stimuli, so without question it is wrong to use disrespectful language and even a disrespectful tone of voice when speaking to a baby.

So much of what we know (and don't know) is intuitive. "The brain is wider than the sky." The author and autistic savant Daniel Tammet alludes to this Emily Dickinson poem in his book about the human mind, Embracing the Wide Sky." (Incidentally, his memoir "Born on a Blue Day" is brilliant.)

I've read or heard somewhere that there's some science/pseudo-science that suggests we can actually affect others with our thoughts. Perhaps this speaks to how we intuitively know the scenario about filming a severely retarded individual would be wrong -- morally debased (evil, I say). But some people are less intuitive than others -- stupid in this sense.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust--I added the bit about seeing us as weird because that's how we often see animals. Even the warm and wonderful David Attenborough (I must stress--one of my heroes!) calls the platypus "bizarre." It suggests detachment--standing back and regarding animals as "objects" not "subjects." But then, as Mel says, we can do these things with varying intentions, and that may affect the degree of detachment and disrespect.

amos said...

There is a difference between invading an animal's space and insulting a baby. No one needs to invade an animal's space: it is a gratuitious act. On the other hand, we have a clear obligation to take care of babies, even when they vomit over us and over the passenger in the next airline seat and even when the hostess refuses to help. In those circumstances and many others, insulting the baby, without shouting at him or her, seems ok to me. Not only do we have duties to others, but also we have duties towards ourselves, one of which is to preserve our sanity.

Wayne said...

I think the no harm no foul rule is misleading us. There can quite easily be foul when there is no harm.

But back to the point, I think the nature of respect is an interesting one. Its not an all or nothing game, where either we are respecting something or not. I can be respectful in many ways, and disrespectful in minor ways. E.g. I don't respect a child's autonomy, but I do have respect for them in other ways, like not violating their property (seriously, who would steal candy from a baby?).

Are we having respect for the platypus? Sure. Is it a deep respect that honors everything about them.... probably not.

Dominic said...


as one of those who thought that this was a silly idea (I think I called it 'wonderful nonsense') I would argue that it makes no sense to extend our human concept of privacy to non-human animals.
We have two types of privacy interest (maybe more). The first type of interest is an explicit desire that some of our actions are performed out of the gaze of others - or at least out of the gaze of most other members of our species. (As an interesting aside, when we seek privacy we don't normally worry about excluding non-human animals. We don't worry about the lizard or insect on the wall, the bird on the tree branch outside the window, or the cat sitting on the couch). We deliberately seek places where we will not be observed or overheard, close the curtains etc. We are offended if we discover someone watching or listening to us.
But there is a second, higher-level, more abstract desire that certain of our activities are private and remain so even if we are and remain unaware of the observer.
It makes some sense to extend the first interest to some non-human animals. The platypus does not want to be disturbed in her burrow. If we obtrusively dig our way in we are likely to cause her fear and discomfort, and frustrate her desire to be in a safe, secure place. Similarly, climbing up a tree to peer into a nest is likely to disturb and distress a bird.
But I think it makes no sense to extend higher order privacy desires to a platypus, to birds, or to most other non-human animals. Watching a rare bird through a telescope or taking their photograph with a telephoto lens is not problematic because they lack (as far as we can tell) a higher order desire for privacy. Not only do they lack the concept of long-distance observation, but (I think) they lack a desire that they remain unobserved even if unaware of that observation.
Here is another way of justifying it. When we reflect on an action that would affect another and contemplate the golden rule we should ask not "what would I want", but "what would I want if I were them".
We might think that it is wrong for the aliens to observe us from a distance because of our desire to avoid even completely surreptitious observation of our most personal activities.

Jean Kazez said...

Dom, That is all very convincing. Perhaps I have to concede that animals don't have any higher level privacy interest (not wanting to be imperceptibly watched), but it still seems like the watcher is a tad "vicious." Why?

How about this--there is an attitude of detachment involved. The attitude is a problem because it does cause harm to animals in other instances, if not in this instance.

Here's another thing we do to animals that bothers me--dressing them up in human clothing and laughing. Again, the attitude is problematic, even if there's no violation of interests. The laugher maintains an external perspective, instead of empathically entering into the animal's perspective. "No harm, no foul" in that instance, but that attitude has serious consequences down the line.

Dominic said...


I agree that a disrespectful attitude towards animals is likely to cause genuine harms and impact upon genuine interests of non-human animals. That may well justify us adopting as a starting point in our interactions an attitude of respect similar to that which we would accord to our own species. We may then identify and justify certain exceptions, where human-type respect is not necessary.
To take the alien analogy further. If we were to meet an alien species we should start off in our interactions according them the level of respect that we would expect of other humans. It may then transpire that this other alien species doesn't care about some things that we do. Perhaps they don't care about privacy. But we should start off respecting their privacy until it is clear what is important to them.

Geoff Coupe said...

Sorry, Jean, I still don't see it. I still think that Dr. Mills' point is bordering on the ridiculous.

I grant you that I do see a distinction between a scientist observing a platypus in its natural habitat to gather data, and seeing a photograph of a dog dressed in a costume, The former I find absolutely acceptable, and the latter I think reflects badly on us, but not on the dog.

And as for the aliens observing us and laughing, well, I'm with the dog - I don't know any better, so why should I be bothered about it?

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, there's something dubious about laughing at dogs in dresses, even if it doesn't hurt the dog. I'm just saying the same dubiousness applies in the other case. If there were some really good scientific reason to drill into platypus burrows, that would make it different. But isn't the BBC drilling in just to create wonderful entertainment? Documentarians aren't really scientists gathering data, are they?

Geoff Coupe said...

"Documentarians aren't really scientists gathering data, are they?" Er, actually, Jean, yes, they can be. See here:
and here:

And if that "wonderful entertainment" helps to kindle excitement in the hearts and minds of the next generation of young scientists, then I, for one, am wholeheartedly in support of it.