Are Wildlife Documentaries an Invasion of Privacy?

Do animals have a right to privacy? It's not something I've ever thought of, I will admit. Then again, I live with an animal that has no respect for any bit of privacy that I might claim (my cat follows me everywhere and has been known to fall asleep on my head), so perhaps I'm less sensitive than some others. Such as Brett Mills of the University of East Anglia. Here's the abstract from a paper he's just published in the Journal of Media and Cultural Studies:

This article examines the BBC wildlife documentary series Nature's Great Events (2009) in order to investigate the ways in which such texts engage with (or ignore) debates about animal ethics, in particular, animals' right to privacy. Through analysis of the 'making of' documentaries that accompany the series, it shows how animals' right to privacy is turned into a challenge for the production teams, who use newer forms of technology to overcome species' desire not to be seen. The article places this analysis within the context of broadcasters' concerns over environmental issues, acknowledging that wildlife documentaries can play a vital role in engaging citizens in environmental debates. However, it is argued that the 'speciesism' which affords humans a right to privacy while disavowing other species such rights is one of the tenets upon which humanity's perceived right to maintain mastery over other species is itself maintained; that is, in order for wildlife documentaries to 'do good' they must inevitably deny many species the right to privacy.

One of the great offenses the BBC committed, according to Mills, was the following of a narwhal under the Arctic ice (check it out in the video above). "Instead of thinking we'll leave it alone, film-makers decide the only solution is to develop new technology so they can film it," Mills told the Guardian.

And that would be a bad thing because?

Mills isn't claiming that documentary makers are harassing the animals and causing them physical harm, rather, he argues that animals have a right to privacy and documentarians are denying it. Even if such a right exists, wouldn't the benefits of these documentaries outweigh animal privacy? People tend to care more about the natural world when that world is made real to them. Concerns about the environmental effects of oil drilling, for example, are naturally on the rise after the disaster in the Gulf. And scientists can learn much about various species by watching the entirety of their lives.

The world is a wide and wondrous place, and wildlife documentaries help us to realize this. It seems to be a fair trade-off for the loss of a little privacy.

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