The private life of animals pt.1: the big debate

04 December 2015 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

No. of comments: 2

Should wildlife photographers be mindful about the privacy of the animals they photograph? In the first of a three-part series exploring the debate, wildlife writer and editor, Tamsin Constable, outlines the concept of privacy for non-human animals and sets the scene for discussion.


The WPY competition prides itself on its high ethical standards. It won't accept entries where the animals may have been disturbed or their behaviour interfered with in any way, for example. The awarded photographers as a rule behave with great integrity; they love wildlife, they understand animal behaviour, they're passionate about raising awareness about nature and championing understanding of wildlife, and they often work closely with zoologists and conservationists. Photographers discuss the rights on wrongs of all sorts of topics, from image manipulation and staging to provisioning and the definitions of 'wild' animal or 'natural' behaviour.

But one academic has raised the question of one other area of ethics - and it's one that has a direct bearing on some wildlife photography: animal privacy. Is there such a thing? Who decides? Who benefits from that decision? And how should society (photographers included) behave, if there is such a thing as animal privacy?

Paul Souders respects the privacy of his subjects by patiently waiting for a cue from their body language


At first glance, this may appear to be nothing short of ridiculous. After all, how can animals possibly have privacy? It's anthropomorphism of the most embarrassing, most scientifically unforgivable kind! We shouldn't waste a moment entertaining such an elementary error, not when there's a planet to save!

Not so fast, says Dr Brett Mills of the University of East Anglia. The reasoning behind such responses are not only philosophically ropey, but they also reveal a lot about how we see our own particular in-group (humans) in relation to other groups of living beings. And that in turn underpins the way we behave towards them. It's about how we, as a society, think about what we can and can't do to other animals in all sorts of contexts, zoos, food, science, entertainment, pets... and wildlife photography.

So what is privacy? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, privacy is "the condition of being secluded or isolated from the view of, or from contact with, others." On this definition, animals of all kinds - the human and the non-human - are entirely capable of seeking and enjoying privacy. Humans retreat into their homes (a caravan, for example); animals into theirs (a den, for example). 1.jpg

Joshua Burch spent a year getting to know the foxes in his suburban backgarden, so any images made were on the foxes' terms


Notice that this definition doesn't say anything about privacy being dependent on awareness. Cognitive ability - or the lack of it - is not the issue. Privacy is quite simply a state of being. Whether the individual knows, wants or understands this or not is irrelevant, according to this definition.

It makes sense of course, because we would accept that a human in a coma, for example, may have a right to privacy, even though they're got less consciousness than most sentient animals.

The word 'privacy' is, though, commonly understood to mean something that we can think about, which is perhaps why the idea of animals having privacy seems so silly. They don't know about privacy, any more than they could learn the flute, build a computer or plan for next Christmas, so there is no discussion to be had, right?

And yet, as Dr Mills points out, animals often act in a way that suggests they want to be 'secluded or isolated from the view of, or from contact with, others' to go back to the definition. From an ethological point of view, it's reasonable to conclude that privacy is the result of evolutionary pressures to find a place that's safe from threat, and that may indeed the most parsimonious explanation. Where this behaviour lies on the continuum between conscious decision and instinct is, as with all animal behaviour, difficult to unravel, but if we accept the definition above, we don't need to go there.

All that matters for the moment is that animals fly away, disappear into trees, dive under the waves, run behind bushes, crawl into nests, burrows, tunnels, dens ... They behave in a way that suggests they would like to be in a state of 'privacy'. 3.jpg

Joshua Burch studied the foxes in his back garden through his bedroom window, slowly getting to know their routes through the garden


The next question, then, brings us into the realm of rights.

With regards to photographing people, it is generally accepted that following people into their own private spaces to photograph them without their agreement is unethical. But when it comes to non-human animals, it's a different story, indeed as a society, we expect wildlife photographers to go to enormous lengths to 'overcome' this 'challenge', Dr Mills points out. Society expects wildlife photographers to use whatever tools, skills and technology they can to follow animals and photograph them, from hides and blinds to drones and nest cameras, from go-pros and remote control cameras to camera traps; these days, we even want them to attach cameras to the bodies of individual animals, so every single movement, every breath, every glance is monitored.

There's habituation, of course - getting the animals to become so used to your presence so that they eventually accept you in their midst, like Tui de Roy when she joins albatrosses colonies, or Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers, who invest huge amounts of time winning the trust of chimpanzees, and Paul Souders, who patiently waits for a cue from a polar bear's body language that it's OK to inch his boat forward. We might accept that, to all intents and purposes, the animals 'agree' to the humans coming into their presence. These highly regarded, highly ethical photographers, like all others associated with WPY, respect the animals' wellbeing above all else, and are devoted to their subjects. At least here, the animals have some agency, some say in the matter (though a cross-species relationship isn't usually what photographers are ultimately there for; what they want is photographic intimacy).

Read how Anup Shah patiently immerses himself in the environment of his subjects to avoid disrupting natural behaviour


And it might well be that a pregnant fox curled up in her den would get used to the camera tucked in the corner and get on with giving birth. If we were discussing a human community, we might not feel so comfortable, and this kind of debate with its colonial overtones has had anthropologists squirming. But that's people, right? And this is about animals. It's not the same thing at all - or is it?

Humans are animals, that much we can agree on. So the justification for treating one set of individuals differently from another set rests instead on their membership of a particular sub-set of animals. Not race, gender, disability, sexuality or religion - but species. Is being a human is a good enough reason for human animals to have greater moral rights than non-human animals? Is it OK to photograph an individual in his or her private space just because they're not a card-carrying member of Homo sapiens?

Or is that just taking a logical argument to the point of practical absurdity?

In the next two blog posts, we speak to two people with different views on the matter: first, Will Burrard-Lucas, a wildlife photographer and pioneer in developing new technologies such as drones and remote-control cameras, and second, Dr Brett Mills of the University of East Anglia, who believes that we should give the idea of 'animal privacy' the some further thought.


About Tamsin Constable

Anthrozoologist Tamsin Constable writes about the relationships between people and other animals, with a particular interest in wildlife. She was a section editor for BBC Wildlife magazine and will be known to many wildlife photographers as caption-writer for the WPY portfolio. Tamsin, who has also penned many of the posts on this site, has a degree in ethology and a Masters degree in Anthrozoology, where she researched what nature means to people. She blogs at Looking for Dragons and is the author of Chimpanzees and co-author of several other non-fiction books, and also works as a Plain English consultant.




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