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.”

For further reading:

New report claims wildlife documentaries violate animal privacy
Professor says producers of nature shows cross an ethical line when they take footage of animals mating or giving birth in their burrows.