LAST FALL, A young King eider arrived in a harbor near Wells, Maine, the terminus of a 2,000-plus mile journey from the tundra ponds of his Arctic summer home. In those comparatively balmy waters he would spend the next several months, diving for food and socializing and perhaps meeting a mate.
In January, a bird enthusiast snapped his photo and posted it along with the duck’s location to the Maine Birds Facebook group. It was a special sighting: King eiders are gorgeous, and while juveniles lack the coloration of adults, whose heads are a melange of jade and pewter and saffron hues, they’re still lovely. As Maine is at the southern edge of the ducks’ range, few local birders had ever seen one.
Several days later, the young King eider was dead. A hunter allegedly used the birder’s post to find and kill it. Anger and regret followed; a few of the group’s members noted that King eiders are not threatened and hunting them is legal, but that was beside the point. An individual who would otherwise be alive was now a memory.
In response, Maine Birds stopped requiring members to include locations with photographs of rarities or owls, who are notoriously disturbance-prone. Problem solved, at least for certain birds — but the incident captured a dilemma confronting not just the bird enthusiasts of southern Maine, but nature-loving people everywhere. How should one navigate between wanting to share photos and videos of the creatures who delight us, and the possibility that attention will bring them harm?
Were the eider a fellow human being, the original Facebook post might be considered doxxing, or publicly sharing someone’s private information, although the comparison differs in a few ways. Doxxing typically involves malicious intent, of which the birder had none. More importantly, the idea of violating someone’s privacy assumes they have privacy, which is not usually recognized in animals other than Homo sapiens. And yet: why not?
Among the first scholars to ask this question was Brett Mills, a media theorist at the University of East Anglia, who in 2010 published an academic essay entitled “Television wildlife documentaries and animals’ right to privacy.” His critique — even more relevant today, with Instagram and Facebook and Twitter turning millions of people into documentarians — revolved around the observation that filmmakers felt obligated to avoid disturbing animals, “yet the question of whether it is appropriate to film animals in this way at all is not raised.”
Responses mostly veered between outrage and derision, which reinforced Mills’ deeper point. That people value privacy for themselves but deny it to animals speaks to our power and sense of superiority. It also didn’t help that Mills spotlighted David Attenborough, a beloved natural historian who’s practically a British national treasure. Assertions of animal rights can make people squirrelly. Some critics also thought it nonsensical to grant animals a right they couldn’t understand.
The latter point is debatable — the act of hiding or remaining unobtrusive expresses the desire at privacy’s root — yet were it true, it’s not a standard we apply to ourselves. Infants don’t understand privacy, but we still protect theirs. And leaving aside the language of rights, there’s no question that animals have an interest in privacy. “If an animal gets an arrow or a bullet in it, it’s game over,” said Steven Cooke, a biologist at Canada’s Carleton University. “Even the presence of people can cause reproductive stress or affect their survival.”
Two years ago, in the high-profile scientific journal Conservation Biology, Cooke and colleagues described the dangers posed by ubiquitous scientific data-gathering and information-sharing. These were not hypothetical: In Australia, authorities used data collected by biologists to find and kill great white sharks. Poachers in India had tried to hack GPS signals from radio-collared tigers. Cooke and his colleagues feared this happening to wolves in North America.
The same concerns apply to citizens as to scientists, and while Cooke’s article didn’t explictly address privacy, that framework makes sense to him now. As to how animal privacy could be protected, he thinks it’s less a matter for legal regulations than ethical norms among professional societies, nature-enthusiast communities, and ultimately individuals. “At the end of the day, it’s all about individual actions and behaviors,” he said. “Before hitting send, before tweeting, think carefully about the consequences.”
People might keep locations of animals to themselves, advises Cooke, or share them only with people they trust. Rather than posting photographs right away, they could let a few weeks or months pass. Mills thinks distinctions could be made between spaces. Just as people implicitly consent to being recorded at football games but not at home, so might people document animals in “public” — such as when they’re foraging in plain sight — but not around burrows and nests and dens.
Perhaps there’s also something to be said for sometimes turning off the camera or even looking away. Anat Pick, a scholar of animal-human relationships at Queen Mary, University of London, writes of “not-seeing”: respecting animal privacy as a civic gesture, a way of rejecting expectations of unlimited access.
That said, several weeks ago, a lone snow goose landed in New York City’s Central Park. Like the King eider, he didn’t belong to an endangered species but was an uncommon sight, and became a minor celebrity among Manhattan’s birders. They shared photos and his whereabouts; the goose had a cataract and, worried for his well-being, they arranged for a local bird hospital to provide care if his health declined. Perhaps the bird’s privacy was infringed, but out of compassion.
Ron Lugo, one of the birders monitoring the goose, shared his thoughts on animal privacy. A bird’s well-being is important, he said, but sharing his photos brings joy to people, and that’s important too. “There’s that balance you have to keep,” Lugo said. “I struggle with that balance.”
Last year Lugo posted a photograph of a screech owl, with instructions on where to find him. It attracted a flock of birders, one of whom chastised him for drawing that attention. This spring, Lugo photographed a screech owl. “It was right there. I was saying, ‘I want to tweet it out. I want to tweet it out,’” he recalled. “But I did not tweet it out. I sent it the next day.”