Humans like watching nonhuman animals. We watch them in parks, in zoos, on farms, in sanctuaries, in pet shops, in our gardens, on the streets, in our homes, on tv, and so on. Lately, we have developed increasingly innovative and ingenious ways of watching animals: ways of accessing their intimate lives without them knowing. Take, as an example, the BBC documentary “Spy in the Wild” in which “animatronic spy creatures infiltrate the animal world to explore their complex emotions”. (If you haven’t seen it, here’s a clip.) Or consider the proliferation of wildlife cams, zoo cams, and pet cams that are placed discretely in animals’ homes and give us unlimited access to their daily lives. Last year, a wildlife fan installed a camera within a birdbox to watch a family of blue tits and the footage was viewed 41 million times within a month of being uploaded. In 2017, 1.2 million people tuned in to watch April the giraffe give birth at Animal Adventure Park.

“They’re so cute, I could eat them!”

Though we like watching animals, there is a growing body of literature that is critical of our visual consumption of animals. A common concern is that human preoccupation with watching other animals often entails problematic assumptions about their moral status and what we are entitled to do with regard to them. When humans watch other animals, we rarely stop to consider whether we are entitled to watch. We know that animals have an interest in controlling the level of intimacy that they have with us, they do not want to be near us or observed by us all the time, and some spend their whole lives avoiding us. Yet we persist, undeterred. The lengths we go to view them undetected, to get the best shots, the most compelling footage, and to have full access to their mysterious lives, are often staggering. We disregard, without a second thought, their desire to not be watched in favour of promoting our own desire to watch them and make them, as Anat Pick puts it, “unconditionally visible”. The presumption that we have the right to monitor the private lives of animals – the lives that they seem not to want us to see – is demonstrative of the widespread attitude that other animals are here for us to use as we please. We want to look, so we look.

All of this should come as no surprise. Each year humans cause billions of animals to suffer needlessly by, for example, exploiting their bodies for food, clothing, and entertainment, and by disregarding their interests when we use (and abuse) the Earth’s natural resources.  The scale of the systemic violence done to other animals is global and perpetuated by the pervasive and pernicious ideology of human exceptionalism – the view that humans are distinct and superior to the rest of nature and other animals, and that the latter are here to be exploited by humans. Thus, our insatiable appetite for the visual consumption of their bodies and their lives should, I think, be seen as symptomatic of the deeply entrenched belief that nonhuman animals are here to serve human ends.

Respecting the privacy of animals

Beyond this basic concern about the attitudes manifest in our watching practices is a further question of whether we wrong animals by watching them. As the case for animal rights grows, so does public sensitivity to the ways in which animals are treated by us. And those who work with animals are now concerned about the effects of overt surveillance on animals. Problematic overt surveillance occurs when we watch animals, they know we’re watching, and they cannot escape our gaze. There is widespread recognition that, for example, zoo animals need private spaces to which they can retreat to avoid constant scrutiny. Similarly, those who watch, and document wild animals recognize the importance of blending into the background to avoid frightening animals, disrupting their relationships, and threatening their communities. The basic thought, upon which there is general agreement, is that we should avoid watching animals if it harms them and causes them distress.

Of course, as we’ve seen, this leaves open the possibility of us finding new ways to watch them which don’t cause them distress. And that’s where the hidden cameras and robot animals come in. But the moral permissibility of these covert ways of watching animals depends on the truth of the widespread assumption that since covert surveillance typically does not affect the feelings or experiences of animals, we do nothing wrong. At heart, this assumption reflects a familiar idiom: what they don’t know won’t hurt them.

I think we have good reason to reject this assumption. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that animals have a right to privacy that makes it morally impermissible to covertly surveil them (the paper is available here). In my view, self-determining animals – animals who act intentionally to satisfy their desires and preferences – have an interest in having genuine control over their environment and their relationships with others, including an interest in being able to control how they present themselves to others. To do this they must have true beliefs about the world they are attempting to navigate. When we covertly manipulate the environment so that other animals are unaware of our surveillance, those animals have false beliefs about whom they are presenting themselves to, and this fact sets back their interest in determining for themselves the kind of relationship they have with us.

If this is correct, then animals who have a significant interest in being able to control how they present themselves to others have a right against covert surveillance. This means that unless we have adequate justification, we cannot manipulate the environments of other animals in ways that give them false beliefs about what they reveal and to whom they reveal it. Thus, unjustified covert surveillance of other animals wrongs them.

In practice, this means that we must respect animals’ desire to withdraw from the gaze of humans, and respect that ultimately, it is the animals who get to choose the degree of intimacy that they wish to have with us. It also means that we must stop manipulating the environment in ways that diminish their ability to control what they reveal about themselves to us. For sure, there may be occasions where we can justify infringing animals’ rights to privacy by appealing to other important rights. It may, for instance, be permissible to use wildlife cams if doing so is necessary to protect the health and lives of individual animals and their communities. But covertly surveilling animals for fun or for education is morally wrong and, consequently, so too is much of the use of spy animals, pet cams, zoo cams, and wildlife cams.

Angie Pepper is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Roehampton. Angie works on issues to do with the rights of nonhuman animals and what we owe to them as a matter of interspecies justice. Her recent work focuses on the normative significance of nonhuman animal agency; in other words, she is interested in what other animals do and why it matters morally, socially, and politically.