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'Owl want to be alone' - do animals deserve privacy?

11:11 UK time, Friday, 30 April 2010

Wildlife documentaries deny animals their 'right to privacy', an academic has claimed. Is this taking animal rights too far?

Dr Brett Mills, from the University of East Anglia, admits it might seem odd to claim that wildlife has a right to privacy, but says that producers of nature shows often ignore behaviour which suggests animals want to be left alone.

He said: "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."

Are wildlife documentaries an invasion of animals' privacy? Do you think animals understand the concept of privacy? Is it more important to learn about our wildlife than respect an animal's privacy? Are you involved in making documentaries?

This debate is now closed. Thank you for your comments.


  • Comment number 1.

    Just tell me this nonsense wasnt funded by my taxes.

    If so the University of East Anglia really needs to have some budget cuts and stop wasting money.

  • Comment number 2.

    What utter rubbish. It is far better to have one camera providing information to millions than to have 1000s of people trying to catch a sight of an animal in the wild, not least because they will all have traveled to get there.

    where exactly did his research fundign come from for this little gem?

  • Comment number 3.

    Surely if an animal is disturbed by something it just moves away to another location or hides?

  • Comment number 4.

    I once accidentally walked in on a Chameleon changing.

  • Comment number 5.

    As the habitats of wild animals are gradually reduced, privacy is the very last thing they are going to get. We are told we need to double the amount of food we produce to support population growth. That surely means more fields, more intensive farming, and inevitably less wildlife habitat.

  • Comment number 6.

    Isn't this just what you would expect of Cringleford Polytechnic?

  • Comment number 7.

    Privacy? I really think that's the wrong word to use. Territorial, yes, and they may even show signs or getting disturbed during filming. But privacy? Do they think the animals are going to get upset because their private lives are going to be shown on national television?

    Now I do think that any one making a nature show should need a Wildlife Licence of some sort (they might already, I dont know) that proves they are capable of making the show as unobtrusively as possible. Of course they will need to be reviewed regularly too.

  • Comment number 8.

    It's just a sign of the times that we live in. Think about it... animals these days have started acting peculiar due to human activities. Pigeons and rabbits have gotten so used to cars being in the road that they dont notice the danger anymore, and hardly move when we approach them. Urban foxes are now dependent on rubbish bin waste for food rather than natural substances. Owls and other nocturnal animals are having their sleeping patterns disrupted by light pollution...i wouldnt go as far to say we are "invading their privacy" by filming them, but on a wider scale, i think we need to think a bit more about how our actions affect wildlife

  • Comment number 9.

    There's a reason for the expression "let sleeping dogs lie".

  • Comment number 10.

    Everyone seems to forget we are just animals too.

    I say we invade them more, and eat them all. As someone posted above there is a world food shortage. When they are all gone we can genetically modify cows to be 500 times the size and we can all eat huge steaks every day.

    If we do end up messing the environment up? Well mass extinctions have happened before when one animal overpopulates and destroys its own habitat, we will just be fitfully proving we are no smarter than all the other animals. The world will recover, new species will become top dog once again. The cycle is complete.

  • Comment number 11.

    I can't wait for the law firms to catch on to the idea.

  • Comment number 12.

    You may all scoff but:

    "former international environmental lawyer Polly Higgins has launched a new campaign urging the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to deem environmental damage on par with genocide and crimes against humanity in international courts."

    Higgins makes her case for ecocide to join that list with a simple equation: extraction leads to ecocide, which leads to resource depletion, and resource depletion leads to conflict.

    Higgins, who has support in the UN and European commission, and among climate scientists, environmental lawyers and international campaign groups.

    The existing definition of "ecocide" as described by Merriam-Webster is "the destruction of large areas of the natural environment especially as a result of deliberate human action," but in order to make "ecocide" more conducive to prosecution and sidestep "legal wrangling," Higgins' UN proposal plans to expand upon the definition.

    This nutcase of a woman wants to make it an international crime to harm trees.

    It's time we stopped all the enviro-maniacs trying to rule the world through their 'good-deeds'.

    I'm all for warm furry animals, I have 6 cats, a dog and a garden with much more wild life than my neighbours. But man comes first.

  • Comment number 13.

    Nick Clark, you may have a point.

    Intelligent life might then develop from cockroaches, and they might be able to see what the planet used to be like by watching David Attenborough DVDs. A bit like a scene out of Wall-E.

  • Comment number 14.

    If the animal in question has a concept of privacy (and how do we know?), then yes of course it has a right to privacy in the same way that every human has a right to privacy. If the animal detects an intusion into its territory, then its behaviour will change accordingly, which may make the filming of that animal "not realistic".
    Having said that, better a camera crew filming than everyone interested in wildlife trampling across the poor animals habitat.

  • Comment number 15.

    JohnH wrote:
    "I have 6 cats, a dog and a garden with much more wild life than my neighbours. But man comes first."

    If you have 6 cats then it's unlikely that you've got much wildlife in your garden, and your neighbours' gardens will be affected by them too. Cats are predators at the top of the food chain, and in a natural situation they would have a home range of 10 square kilometres each. Birds, bats, slow-worms, moths, mice and newts are all likely to be killed by them.

  • Comment number 16.

    Damn, and there was me thinking of putting a small wireless camera on my bird table.

  • Comment number 17.

    This story is hilarious. I can't imagine for one moment that animals understand the human concept of privacy. My cat thinks nothing of undertaking the most intimate of 'laundry' tasks in the middle of a crowded room, has no idea what 'this is my private space, get your own pillow' means, and simply walks away if he doesn't want human attention. This is the same as all animals in my experience - including for example the wild foxes who are currently living in my garden - I'm sure they feel no guilt at invading my privacy and taking over, all the while forcing me to curb my own behaviour around them - I was going to take down the summer house, but can't now, because they're under it, and also I've taken to standing and staring at them because the cubs are so cute...

    I agree with others in wondering where the funding for such a study comes from!

  • Comment number 18.

    "Privacy and peace is for humans" Animals need {freedom }to move about to find food and a mate? Not many places' left in the world today, that this can happen without humankind.

  • Comment number 19.

    An elephant is very capable of letting you know it would prefer you went away. And most wildlife documentary crews respect that.

  • Comment number 20.

    Of course you should respect an animal's privacy. In actual fact the human race shoud respect animals totally, 100% end of story. This will never happen whilst there are big profit making companies willing to make animal lives a misery to sell cheap non-nutritional meat to people who should know better.

  • Comment number 21.

    10. At 1:10pm on 30 Apr 2010, Nick Clark wrote:
    Everyone seems to forget we are just animals too.
    Please Nick, when will you learn? This is HYS... comments of a wise or intelligent nature are forbidden.

  • Comment number 22.

    By the same logic, anyone sunbathing naked on a beach ought to expect the seagulls to look the other way.

    Privacy only applies to animals that can understand the concept. Even our closest primate relatives don't bother with it, when it comes to things such as mating or ridding themselves of bodily wastes.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    We're at the top of the food chain which is a pretty responsible place to be. I personally think is bonkers and the thought of Attenborough going to the Hague for ecocide or harassing rare species would be comical to say the least.

    As we are top of the chain however we should try and be a bit more responsible to the environment and i think that the majority of us do think about the environment before 'plodding' on. the best way to teach us this mantra is for producers to show us what we would be affecting in the first place.

    Chicken and egg i know but we need education to promote and enforce environmental change for the good!

  • Comment number 25.

    I have no problems with beautiful wildlife documentaries like Life, Earth, etc, which seem showing respect to animals and usually keep their distance to allow the animals to show their natural behavior in their own territory. I have serious problems with shows like The Crocodile Hunter and other animal mangler shows. Those shows lack respect for the animals and are more focused on the look-at-crazy-me host than the animals. I am sorry for his family but Steve Irwin had it coming.

  • Comment number 26.

    Can someone tell me i9f I am interfering with an animals 'Rights' by putting food out when the weather is bad ?
    Should I just let 'Nature' take its course ?
    Should I leave the Birds and smaller animals to their fate, and larger predators ?
    Is it their 'Right' do die this way, or from starvation ?

    What a barmy attitude some people have !
    It is a pity they cannot find a 'Proper' job, or would this interfere with 'their' rights to take monies from Tax-Payers ?

  • Comment number 27.

    Perhaps we should have a study of Dr Mills. To see if he has anything between his ears apart from a mouth.

  • Comment number 28.

    Does this mean that I can no longer watch my mother-in-law's black cat through the camera concealed in her broomstick?

  • Comment number 29.

    This report obviously raises extremely sensitive issues.
    Selflessly, I am prepared to dedicate the rest of my working life on studying this issue, lecturing for additional fees ON TOP OF THE MASSIVE FUNDING GRANT, write tedious and boring book, travel the world watching others make documentaries in places like the Bahamas, Seychelles, other unspoilt and safe places. Appear on “couch talk show” telly. And leave enough questions, riddles and debates, to ensure that generations of “academics” can enjoy a an easy life without having to do something difficult.

    Offers of grants please! No Time wasters, min entry level £2.5mpa. Well you want proper research done don’t you!

  • Comment number 30.

    If we are talking about wild animals the answer is that the animal in question needs only to run off away from the cameras. What a lot of fuss is being made over nothing. Wildlife documentary photographers have done more to protect animals int he wild than any charity you care to mention.

    I have always been amazed at how sensitively the photographers handle their subjects and they must have made many thousands of people more aware of the different species on our planet. I thank them for that.

    We are animals with cameras watching our every move - do we not deserve privacy?

  • Comment number 31.

    Disturbance is not on. Surely where privacy is mentioned here, if animals' behaviour changes, we are talking about disturbance? If an animal moves away, it is indicating that it wishes to be left alone (and should be) unless it is injured and we are able to help. Disturbance is a major problem in that it causes stress, young may be deserted, or a hungry bird or animal may not feed after a long migration.

    If birds recognise a small camera in a nest box, do they realise what it is? If they don't, I imagine they will not be too concerned.

    With some species vulnerable to extinction, does it not help if they are studied and better understood?

    As for privacy - well, my cats will try to follow me into the toilet and watch, so that isn't taboo for them, clearly.

    Most animals are extremely inquisitive. So are we. As long as we don't stare too long to intimidate or to bring predators' attention their way.

    Oh, JohnH at 12: your dog may worship you, but if you really think that man comes first with six cats - you are sadly disillusioned, you are viewed and tolerated as a humble butler (as am I).

  • Comment number 32.

    Ignoring another species wish for privacy maybe nice and easy with say a butterfly or a lizard but try doing it with a great white or a large crocdile!
    It may be necessary to disturb and frighten some species in order to learn about their needs but i feel it should be kept to a minimum. We are NOT more important than any other living creature on this planet. They can survive without us but we would die without them.

  • Comment number 33.

    It is a fair point. I am not rure about rights, or whether we need expensive academic research to tell us this, but many animals are scared of cameras, noisy and smelly humans, and freedom from fear is something we ought to respect. Also, one wonders how much genuine information is recorded in these nature programmes. Most animals would spend most of their lives sleeping, but that is not what the viewers want to see; they want to see predation, nature red in tooth and claw. Obviously this is part of nature, but documentaries by tradition are highly selective.

  • Comment number 34.

    Waste of taxpayers money

  • Comment number 35.

    I take the same view of this as I do of zoos; in an ideal world we'd do without all of this, but if wildlife documentaries make people care more about preserving animal species by giving them insights into the wonders of the non-human world, then I'd say a little intrusion is justified from all points of view. As for zoos, I think of them as ambassadorial facilities for the animal kingdom - the residents are displaced from their homes and living in approximations of their true environments, but they act as representatives for their species which allow us to appreciate them, so their 'postings' are for the good of all.

  • Comment number 36.

    Just wondering what the going rate for an eco-lawyer is and whether I should open my practice now.....

    As the animals have no money to take the film makers to court, does this mean they will get legal aid, funded by the dear old tax payer? We would obviously be discriminating against them otherwise!

  • Comment number 37.

    Instead of this degree of concern about a few camera crews in the wild, how about we pay more attention to the fact that MILLIONS of animals are still being tortured in toxicity tests - just so we can have yet another shampoo or moisturiser shoved in our consumerist faces !

    Choose what brand you buy more carefully and you could save thousands of animals from REAL harm.

    You only have to look at boycott PandG. co . uk

  • Comment number 38.

    Invading an animal's privacy is a small price to pay because it is educating the public to be aware of & to care for & love the creatures.

  • Comment number 39.

    Karl Popper pointed out the difference between laws of nature and societal laws.

    A law of nature that we can all remeber from school is Newton's third law of motion "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". It is a law that cannot be broken. A simple example if that you cannot pick up a 10lb weight with a 1lb rated string.

    By comparison, the laws that we create in Parliament are entirely our decisions.

    Animals do not have a right to privacy unless we pass a law making such.

  • Comment number 40.

    It's April 30th, not April 1st..

    Please don't tell me that this nutjob is serious? If so, time for one less sponger sucking up valuable research grants...

  • Comment number 41.

    So while people muse about a few camera crews in the wild, there's still millions of animals being tortured in cosmetics tests - just so they can stick yet another kind of shampoo in front of our consumerist faces !

    or - we can inform ourselves about which brands to buy - and stop the suffering by buying BUAV approved brands.

  • Comment number 42.

    Other countries scientists are shaping the future,Britains scientists are studying if we are keeping Owls awake.

    No wonder this country is in decline.

  • Comment number 43.

    Get a life! I am an animal lover and will do whatever I can to protect animals. Dr Brett Mills needs to focus his energy on preventing morons from shooting/killing animals.

  • Comment number 44.

    One of the comments suggests we should disturb them all and devour them all and I wondered if he meant we should eat people as well. I love seeing the birds and wild animals that come into my garden and I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to eat or harm them particularly as most of them wouldn't even make a sandwich. I hope he has no pets.

  • Comment number 45.

    The Welsh Assembly are about to exterminate all the Badgers in North Pembrokeshire and South Cardiganshire(Ceredigion) in the mistaken belief that it will help eliminate Bovine TB in cattle. Cullwatch will be photographing events to help publicise this barbaric act of human stupidity.Cullwatch are still trying to obtain the badgers permission.

  • Comment number 46.

    From the very low number of commentors I guess most of you are too busy worrying about really serious matters. Well, a plague on your houses.

    Think of all those cute little meekats still searching for David Attenborough. One moment he was a much loved member of their community then he just got up and disappeared. Not so much as a goodbye or anything.

    I get the distinct impression I am speaking to myself so I'll say goodnight, sleep tight and don't let the bed-bugs bite. It might damage their teeth.

  • Comment number 47.

    I think that sometimes naturalists do go over the top with observing animal behaviour. However, I believe they normally go out of their way to be unobtrusive as otherwise they would not get the natural behaviour observations they are aiming for! Incidentally I have many more than 6 cats and my garden is teeming with wildlife. It is the habitat that is important. In fact it is thanks to the cats bring creatures indoors alive and unharmed, that I have been able to contribute to wildlife studies as were it not for them I would not know we had such creatures in the garden!

  • Comment number 48.

    One owl said to another owl why are those documentary people always pointing those camera's at us? The other owl retorted, it must be they're waiting for us to smile.

    wilyspeakesout, London & Dublin

  • Comment number 49.

    I actually looked at my calendar to see if it was 1 Apr!!!!!!!!!!!!! This has to be a joke. I think Dr Mills needs to get out a bit more!!!!

  • Comment number 50.

    I will no longer be watching the squirrels scampering around my garden - I don't want to invade their privacy and get sued for a breach of their squirrel rights.

    Honestly, whatever next! Don't these people have anything better to research than this utter drivel?

  • Comment number 51.

    Some of the "higher" more sentient animals might, just might, have a similar sense of privacy to that of a very young human child - just maybe. As some others have posted, elephants and other large animals will leave you in no doubt that you presence is unwelcome.
    I have worked with professional & keen hobby photographers and filmer cameramen, they all seemed sympathetic to a fault with regards to causing the least disturbance to the natural environment, and thereby, to animal behaviour.
    One other thing, isn't this latest output from the same university which was involved in the cover-up scandal re global warming/MMCC research? Shouldn't someone investigate how this institution utilises public finances?

  • Comment number 52.

    Dr Brett Mills, from the University of East Anglia really needs to get out more.
    I`ve never read so much tosh for ages.
    I just hope that British taxes were not used by this airhead.

    What a complete and utter FOOL!

  • Comment number 53.

    I suspect that it is also quite likely that farm animals would rather not be slaughtered for their meat. Are animals now able to recognise micro cameras that humans would failed to have identified fifty years ago?

    First climate change and now animal privacy. UEA demonstrates that it is a prime candidate for the harshest of budget cuts.

  • Comment number 54.

    This type of comment by an " Academic " simply reinforces the view of the man in the street that they should GET A LIFE and stop wasting our money on esoteric projects which are simply surreal to the average taxpayer.

  • Comment number 55.

    Privacy is perhaps the wrong word to use...this is simply placing a human value onto animals which is not accurate.

    I do however think there is a point to the above. Its not that animals need privacy. Its that they need space and human intrusion changes their behavior in some cases. It is very important to learn about wildlife and of course this involves following some animals for a period of time. But all within reason. Animals just want to get on with their business.

    But surely this is all common it not?

  • Comment number 56.

    As I write this contribution I am watching two cats humping noisily in the middle of the road in full view of all the neighbours working in their gardens and cleaning their cars on a nice Saturday morning. Should we all go indoors to give these feline friends privacy, or maybe offer them the use of a bedroom ? I'm not an academic so I don't know what to do.


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